Arizona could become the latest state to prohibit child marriage with a proposal to prevent anyone younger than 16 from getting married.
The measure to create a minimum age for marriage headed to Gov. Doug Ducey's desk after passing the state Senate on Thursday. Similar laws were signed by governors in Kentucky and Florida earlier this year.
Bill sponsor Rep. Michelle Ugenti-Rita, R-Scottsdale, said she was shocked to learn Arizona had no minimum age for marriage after hearing about the laws that passed in other states.
"A lot of abuses and manipulation can happen with minors getting married, especially when the other partner in the relationship is an adult, presumably, or sometimes 10, 15 year older," she said. "We really needed to update statutes to reflect how society views marriage and what age is appropriate for someone to enter into it, considering what impact it has on your life,"
The Tahirih Justice Center, which advocates for protecting women from violence, trafficking and other abuses, testified at a committee hearing that 525 marriage licenses were issued to minors in the past five years in Maricopa County. Nationwide, more than 200,000 children under age 18 were married from 2000 to 2015, according to data provided by Tahirih.
Should Arizona's law be enacted, there would still be 22 states without a minimum age for marriage, according to Tahirih.
The Arizona proposal also says anyone who is 16 or 17 could marry someone who is no more than three years older as long as they had parental permission. Florida and Kentucky's law also contain provisions on age differences, according to Tahirih.
Anita Raj, a public health professor and director of the Center on Gender Equity and Health at University of California, San Diego, says child marriage in the United State is sometimes precipitated by a teen pregnancy.
"It's not uncommon for adults to feel, in certain circumstances, that it's in the best interests of the minor child to marry," she said.
Under any circumstances, child marriage raises concerns about developmental consequences and an unhealthy power dynamic — or even physical violence, Raj said.
"Marriage is viewed as something that is an indication of adulthood, and so you're taking away developmental opportunities, but also social protections that we really hold in place for children," she said.
Ugenti-Rita's original proposal for Arizona's law would've banned marriage for anyone under 18. But she said she changed the age to 16 and added the age gap provision after some lawmakers found 18 to be too restrictive.
The ultimate proposal received unanimous support from Democratic lawmakers and a majority of Republicans.
One lawmaker who voted in opposition, Rep. David Stringer, R-Prescott, said during a committee hearing earlier this year that he wanted to know why the state should be involved in family's decisions.
"Why should the state of Arizona be passing a law that absolutely proscribes when it's appropriate to get married and when it isn't?" he asked.
Ugenti-Rita responded that the state already sets age limits for driving, drinking and voting.
"I think it's in our minors' interest that they are of a kind of a certain comprehension before they enter into marriage, which is a big deal," she said.