Members of the NC General Assembly stand in this April file photo. (AP Photo/Gerry Broome) NC General Assembly
Members of the NC General Assembly stand in this April file photo. (AP Photo/Gerry Broome)

As the long-awaited law goes into effect, North Carolina has the fifth most child marriages in the nation.  

Up until last month in North Carolina, a 25-year-old man could impregnate a 14-year-old girl and side-step statutory rape charges if he convinced her parents to let him marry her.

That changed when Gov. Roy Cooper signed Senate Bill 35 into law last month. It struck down the so-called “pregnancy exception,” raised the age of marriage in North Carolina to 16, and stipulated that 16- and 17-year-olds could not marry anyone more than four years their senior. 

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It was the culmination of a years-long coordinated campaign between a bipartisan slate of lawmakers, advocacy organizations and community stakeholders. State Sen. Vickie Sawyer, an Iredell County Republican, initially lobbied to raise the marrying age to 18, but encountered pushback from fellow legislators. Rather than sacrifice any progress at all, the coalition compromised to raise the age to 16. 

The law brings North Carolina up to par with countries like Belize and Liberia. Previously, North Carolina tied with Alaska for the lowest minimum marriage age in the United States.

“Child marriage doesn’t discriminate. It’s happening globally and North Carolina is a part of that globe,” Casey Swegman, Forced Marriage Initiative project manager for the Tahirih Justice Center, told Cardinal & Pine.

The International Center for Research on Women ranked North Carolina in the top five US states for child marriages. An estimated 8,781 child marriages took place in the state from 2000-2019. Only half of North Carolina’s 100 counties voluntarily provided data, excluding Mecklenburg and Wake, the state’s most populous counties. 

Still, at least 3,949 marriage license applications involving minors were filed. Of those, 241 applicants had an age difference of 10 years or more and 26 had a difference of 20 years or more. 

“In North Carolina, we saw circumstances where the pregnancy that allowed a 14- or 15-year-old to be approved to marry was evidence of statutory rape because of the age of the person they were marrying, and instead of criminal charges being brought, marriage licenses were issued,” Swegman said. 

Pregnancy is often used as a justification by parents pushing young teens to marry, but according to Swegman, data shows that delaying marriage actually leads to better economic and educational outcomes for teen mothers. They have fewer children with more time in between to develop as parents and individuals. And the choice remains to marry and co-parent as adults down the road. 

“There’s a fundamental belief that if a young girl is pregnant, the best thing for her and the unborn child is for her to marry the father of that baby,” Swegman said. “That assumption just does not bear out… both for the teen and the children she is having.” 

There are other devastating consequences to girls marrying before 18: They are 50% more likely to face physical or sexual violence from a partner. They have higher school dropout rates, increased depression and psychiatric disorders, and more likelihood of poverty, due to more frequent pregnancies. 

“This legislation is an important step toward ending child marriage in North Carolina and instituting more protections for children,” Cooper wrote in a statement. “While it falls short of raising the age of marriage to 18, it will make our state a safer place for children.”

Coalition members are still hoping to eventually reach the “bright line of 18” and end child marriage altogether. 

“Now that we’ve raised this awareness, I hope there will be minors out there who will think twice about what they are being told about marriage and understand they can say no to a marriage they are not ready for or don’t want,” Swegman said.