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How Underage Marriage Puts Girls At Risk

A State House protester from the group Unchained at Last wears chains and wedding attire.
Meredith Nierman/WGBH News

Is age 14 too young to get married?

Right now in Massachusetts, there's no law against it.

Six 14-year-old girls were married in the state between the years 2000 and 2008. That's according to the non-profit advocacy group Unchained at Last, which has been poring over state records. The group also held a rally at the state house Thursday.

Unchained at Last also found that from 2000 to 2014, in Massachusetts, more than a 1,000 kids age 14 to 17 got married. Massachusetts is among a growing number of states with legislation pending to stop child marriages.

Child marriage survivors, along with advocates and supporters, gathered on the Massachusetts State House steps on May 11 to urge state legislators to pass S785/H2310, the pending bill that would end child marriage in Massachusetts.
Meredith Nierman/WGBH News

Donna Pollard is one of just a few willing to tell her story. She is now in her 30s and lives in Louisville, Ky. She said back when she became a rebellious teenager, her mother sent her away to a mental health facility. It was there that she met her future husband, a counselor. She was 14, and he was more than twice her age. 

"He was very flirtatious," said Pollard. "I would be in the cafeteria with him and he would position himself behind me very close and brush against me or bump into me, and then I would turn around and he would smile. I mean, he was very flirtatious."
Those flirtations continued for the five weeks she was there. Afterward, she was sent home to her mother. 

"He called me the very next day and he professed his love for me and we talked about how we could make the relationship work," said Pollard.

Pollard said her mother encouraged it.

"She agreed to start taking me up, meeting him halfway between our residences on weekends to spend time with him," said Pollard. "She would leave me alone with him for hours." 

Pollard said she quickly lost her virginity. She was still 14 and he had turned 30. When he visited, they slept together in her bed with her mother asleep in the next room.
"She (my mother) saw it as the ability to have someone that could control me and keep my behavior in line, because visiting him was basically an incentive for me not to rebel against her," said Pollard.

Pollard said this went on for over a year. But whose idea was it then, to get married?

"I thought that it was mine at the time," said Pollard. "But he had conditioned me to believe that his affection was what defined my self-worth. I thought all I needed was him.  And so, when he mentioned getting married, I jumped at the opportunity."

So Pollard — with her mother along to give legal consent — and this man, went to the clerk's office to get a marriage license.
"When we walked in, the clerk wouldn't even look at me," said Pollard. "I remember feeling extremely uncomfortable. I think once I realized what was really happening, I wanted someone to speak up or at least question."

Fraidy Reiss, founder of Unchained at Last, said the clerk doesn't have authority to intervene.

Reiss and the organization are working to end childhood marriage one state at a time.
"We've actually heard stories from other states where a girl has shown up at the clerk's office sobbing while her parents forced her into a marriage," said Reiss.
According to Reiss, the states with the most underage marriages are Idaho, Kentucky and Arkansas, but there's no typical profile for these girls; they're from rural and urban areas and from a variety of religions. Some are married off to control their sexuality, for fear she'll get pregnant, or already is pregnant. There are arranged marriages, often to older men to keep a girl from straying from a cloistered community. Some girls are new immigrants, while others are from families that have been here for generations.

Fraidy Reiss, founder of Unchained at Last, addresses the crowd during an underage marriage protest at the State House.
Meredith Nierman/WGBH News

Massachusetts, like most states, does have a minimum marriage age of 18. But every state allows exceptions. When those exceptions are made, more than half the states — 27 including Massachusetts — have had no minimum age limit at all. This was news to State Representative Kay Khan.

"Well, quite honestly, I was shocked," said Khan. "I thought, 'Oh, Really? Here in Massachusetts?' It was actually a surprise to me, and I find that when I mention it to other people, they also are quite surprised."
Khan is pushing a bill to have Massachusetts join other states in setting a strict age limit of 18 with no exceptions. Meanwhile, she's working with judges who have to approve these marriages and with police and social services who might come into contract with vulnerable girls like Donna Pollard.

Pollard said the abuse started as soon as the marriage did.

She remembers several times the police coming, but speaking only to her husband who gave reassurances that everything was OK.

"The police never questioned it further," said Pollard. "They had to see me and know that I was young, and underage. But they never questioned me about 'Are you OK? Are you being abused?'"

Even if the police had removed her, she would likely have been returned her to her mother, who would likely have turned her over to her husband.

Protesters dressed up in bridal attire with tape, chains, and signs expressing their advocacy against underage marriage.
Meredith Nierman/WGBH News

"So essentially, I was trapped," said Pollard. "I had no legal rights as a married minor."

Pollard was in a legal limbo where she was neither a child nor an adult. 

She should have been in 10th grade, but like most, she dropped out of school when she married. She got a minimum wage job at a grocery store. As the abuse worsened, she saved up her money and with a pay stub in hand, tried more than once to leave.

"There were a couple of times when I did go to apartment complexes and try to rent an apartment on my own," said Pollard.  "And the people ... told me 'no' because I was not yet 18, and they said I could not legally enter into a contract with them."
Being married cuts a child off from protective services. They may refer a girl to a shelter, but battered women’s shelters generally are open only to women over 18. Pollard was on her own. She remembers going numb to endure the abuse. By then, Pollard had a baby daughter. 

"The final straw for me was when she (my daughter) was witnessing her father choke me and she began laughing because of course she's ... a baby," said Pollard. "She doesn't know that this is violent. In her mind, we were playing. And I realized at that point that if I stayed and I let this continue, she would end up growing up thinking that this type of behavior was OK."

By now, Pollard was over age 18, which is the age of legal consent. She was literally set free.
"I was able to get my own place," said Pollard. "I could actually enter into a contract agreement with a person who had an apartment that he rented to me. And I was able to actually file for my own divorce."

Pollard said she is speaking out so that other young girls don't have to go through what she did.

Representative Khan's bill to prevent child marriage is winding it's way through the Massachusetts State House.

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