McGuireWoods Consulting’s Raleigh Team Helps Raise Marriage Age in North Carolina

August 31, 2021

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On Aug. 26, North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper signed Senate Bill 35 into law, outlawing the marriage of pregnant 14- and 15-year-olds and banning 16- and 17-year-olds from marrying someone who is four years older than they are.

McGuireWoods Consulting vice president, Laura Puryear, senior vice president, Kerri Burke, and research associate, April Neumann, worked pro bono with the Tahirih Justice Center, an advocacy group working to end child marriages, to help build a coalition of support for the legislation and navigate the bill through the 2021 legislative session.

“We built a coalition from the ground up that was comprised of nonprofits, survivor advocates, community advocacy groups, elected officials, and concerned citizens. From there we developed grassroots, grasstops, and media campaigns to see this project through from start to finish,” Puryear said.

The International Center for Research on Women recently completed an extensive analysis on child marriage in the state, and the data served as an impetus for the legislation. The study looked at 50 counties and found there were 3,949 applications involving 4,218 minors. The research found that in the overwhelming majority of these marriages where one of the parties is below the age of 18 that the younger party is female.

“There was an effort to raise the age 20 years ago. Back then the marriage age was 13 and they were only able to get it moved up to one year to 14 years old,” Puryear said. “This is no fault of any legislators that are currently in office, they just didn’t know the issue existed until we had the data. This isn’t something that people go out and celebrate. It’s something children are forced into and it’s not widely talked about.”

The Tahirih Justice Center connected the bill sponsors to people the group describes as survivors of child marriage to help lawmakers understand the dangers of child marriages. The Senate bill originally banned child marriage altogether, but Senators were forced to introduce a compromise to move the legislation forward. The language was amended to banning marriage under 16, which passed unanimously in the Senate and House.

“We worked with stakeholders and survivor advocates to write a compromise bill that would raise the age to 16. It included additional protections to remove a ‘pregnancy exception’ that leaves young women vulnerable to forced pregnancy as well as adding a provision that sets a maximum four-year age gap between parties if one of the parties being married is a minor. This puts marriage law in line with statutory rape law in the state for the first time,” Puryear said.

Although the legislation falls short of ending child marriages completely, the campaign resulted in significant improvements to the prior law.

Puryear added, “I am thrilled that our bill was signed, but am looking forward to coming back next year to work on raising the age to 18.”