West Virginia will no longer allow children under 16 to marry, after the governor signed a compromise bill Wednesday.
The law signed by Republican Gov. Jim Justice continues allowing children ages 16 and 17 to get married with restrictions. Under the new law, those minors must get parental consent and can’t marry someone more than four years older than them. Existing legal marriages, and those done in other states, are unaffected.
Previously, anyone younger than 16 could have gotten married with a judge’s waiver.
Similar bills to ban child marriage were proposed in recent years but didn’t get traction.
Some Democrats, including the bill's sponsor, Del. Kayla Young off Kanawha County, had hoped to eliminate child marriage altogether. Some Republicans in the GOP-dominated Legislature spoke about how they or their parents had married before adulthood and argued that state recognition of the relationships helps keep families together.
Young said she had to compromise with her Republican colleagues to secure a minimum age for marriage, and celebrated the aspect of the bill that prohibited large age gaps.
Seven states have set the minimum age for marriage at 18, all since 2018, according to the advocacy group Unchained at Last, which has lobbied for legislation in variousstates to end child marriage. The group calls the practice a human rights abuse.
Supporters of such legislation say it reduces domestic violence, unwanted pregnancies and improves the lives of teens.
West Virginia had the highest rate of child marriages among the states, according to the Pew Research Center. There were around seven marriages for every 1,000 children ages 15 to 17 in West Virginia in data collected from 2010 to 2014, compared to around 4.6 marriages per 1,000 for the same age group nationwide. More recent figures were unavailable.