Wedlocked is a Teen Vogue series about child marriage in the United States that examines the history of the practice and its modern reality, as all 50 states have laws with provisions that that allow people under 18 to marry.
When 17-year-old Cassandra Levesque approached the New Hampshire State House on March 9, she didn’t come to make peace with the law. She came with a binder three inches thick with research. Her objective: End child marriage in New Hampshire. Ultimately, she lost the battle, and child marriage is still legal in NH via the loopholes her bill tried to close up. What happened next would prove Cassandra’s role was bigger than NH. Although her bill was defeated, she sparked a national conversation. People everywhere saw a teenager standing up for anyone ever forced into a marriage when they were too young. They saw her pop the question, “Will New Hampshire end child marriage and set a new bar for America?” Then they saw lawmakers respond, “No.” Heads shook everywhere, and Cassandra became a symbol for the struggle to end child marriage in America.
In New Hampshire, even though the legal age to marry is 18, loopholes in the law allow girls to get married with parental and judicial consent as young as 13 and boys, 14. Cassandra first learned about these loopholes through a presentation on human trafficking conducted by UNICEF, a global organization and United Nations program that is dedicated to the healthy development of children and mothers. That was all it took to put her back in touch with her state representative Jacalyn Cilley (D-NH), whom she first met as a Brownie in the second grade when Cilley gave Cassandra her first tour of the State House. Cassandra reached out to Cilley, and her representative took up her cause. Together they got to work on drafting Cassandra’s bill to end child marriage in NH.
“I sat down with Representative Cilley and we talked about what I wanted the bill to say,” Cassandra tells Teen Vogue. “And she had her team write a draft of what the bill would look like. Then she showed me it, and some of it I could understand, but most of it was law terms that I had not heard before. So, she explained what it was, and I agreed that it was saying what I wanted.”
Those conversations morphed into House Bill 499, an uncompromising piece of legislation that pointed specifically to the loopholes Cassandra wanted to contest and sought to eliminate them. With Cilley’s help, she got the bill introduced to the state House of Representatives. She attended the debate over the bill and looked on as representatives went back and forth discussing the amendments she wanted to make, in turns contesting and welcoming the arguments her bill made. Her presence was powerful. But it wasn’t enough. Opposition to the bill would prove to be too much, and the bill was voted down.
“I was concerned that the legislature might pass a bad change to our marriage law just because it was initially proposed by a Girl Scout who was sitting in the gallery with her family watching the proceedings,” says Representative David Bates (R-NH), who says kids who introduce legislation often succeed because lawmakers don’t want to disappoint them. “I did not like disappointing Cassandra any more than anyone else did, but the bills’ amended language was seriously flawed and we could not pass it just to avoid hurting her feelings. I trust she is mature and responsible enough to appreciate that.”
Bates provided state data that shows in 2016, five girls in total were married in New Hampshire. That’s a substantial decrease from 1989 when 121 children were wed, but the numbers in NH, while lower than the rest of the country, do not always show a steady decline. They waver between four and 20 marriages total each year since 2001. However, the last time a 13-year-old wed was in 2013, and those are the marriages where Cassandra sees the most potential for harm. That’s because she’s met child brides in her community affected by NH’s laws, and in her activism that opposes child marriage, she fights for them.
“Overall, I put all their stories together in my head and I realized they were all basically in the same position,” Cassandra says. “They all were married at around the same age. They were all in a marriage that was bad. They had children. They had all gone through abuse. And [if] some that I know have gone through abuse … then this was going on with other girls who are child brides.”
In a written statement made to Teen Vogue, Bates addressed a comment he made that was shared by many media outlets, including political satire shows like Full Frontal with Samantha Bee where he appears to disparage Cassandra’s efforts: “We’re asking the legislature to repeal a law that’s been on the books for over a century, that’s been working without difficulty, on the basis of a request from a minor doing a Girl Scout project,” Bates is seen saying in a clip used on Bee’s show.
“What they’re saying is, ‘She’s old enough to marry, but not old enough to make decisions about marriage,’” says Fraidy Reiss, founder of Unchained at Last, describing Cassandra, who she met at a protest hosted in Boston. “She’s not old enough to talk about marriage, but she’s old enough to enter into a marriage. It’s completely offensive and illogical and irrational.”
Bates says his comments have been misconstrued. He told Teen Vogue that he was not defending exceptions where minors can marry as young as 13. He was instead contesting a judicial waiver that allows 17-year-olds enlisted in the military to wed. His arguments to keep that one waiver compelled others to vote the bill down, causing 13 to remain the minimum age of marriage in NH.
“That is the law I was referring to in the quote you asked about,” Bates said in an email to Teen Vogue (emphasis his). “The judicial waiver process has been in place for 110 years in NH, and it has worked well – maybe imperfectly (like all laws), but it has worked.”
In Cassandra’s view from the courtroom, however, she saw Bates’ argument in the same light as Samantha Bee. “When the main representative who was against the bill was saying how they should keep the bill standing as it is, because it’s 100 years old, I don’t think that was very just, because we’re in a new time from 100 years ago,” she explains.
Bates blames the sponsors of Cassandra’s bill for its ultimate failure, calling its provisions to firmly establish 18 as the limit to apply to marry “unpalatable” because they would stop early military marriages.
Cassandra says she felt like lawmakers respected her input, but “at the same time, they were concerned for being against it, instead of being concerned about who is this impacting. Because yes, it is a law that has been on the books for 100 years, but a lot of bills are so old that they need to be changed.” She doesn’t think lawmakers “realize that this was going to impact so many young men and women.”
“Marriage before 18 undermines a girl’s health,” Reiss explains. “It puts her at a 23 percent greater risk of heart attack, cancer, diabetes, and stroke, and an increased risk of nearly every psychiatric disorder that exists.”
To activists like Cassandra and Reiss, five child brides in NH in 2016 is five too many. That’s why Cassandra continues to work with Cilley, consulting with her representative for guidance as she seeks to raise awareness for this cause. Recently she joined Unchained at Last for what is known as a “chain-in,” a form of peaceful protest conducted in events all over the country. The chain-ins draw as many as 50 people of all ages and backgrounds, who dress in bridal gowns and veils, tape their mouths shut and link arms, providing a visual for how girls in the United States are still being trapped by loopholes that allow child marriage to endure today. From behind the masking tape, the protesters sing a song written by a group of girls in Zambia who want child marriage to be over. It’s called “We Are Girls, Not Brides,” and features lyrics like: “Speak out, speak out. You have a voice, just speak it out.”
For her part, Cassandra’s not done using her voice. She graduates high school next year and is preparing for college. She wants to study art education and plans to remain politically active. As a member of Girls Scouts of the Green and White Mountains, she enjoys having a positive impact in her community. She even recently started a patch program in New Hampshire libraries that inspires kids to learn about the causes they care about and prepares them to do something about it. When it comes to ending child marriage, Cassandra is still focused, resuming talks with Cilley to see what steps they can take next. She keeps up the fight, because the plight of child brides is an issue that has gotten under her skin.
“It was definitely shocking to know that even today that children are getting married young,” she says.
If you are facing or fleeing a forced marriage or know someone who is, contact the Tahirih Justice Center’s Forced Marriage Initiative to get help at email@example.com. Visit preventforcedmarriage.org to find out more.