But it can happen here in the United States, too. While domestic teen marriages are rare, the laws on the books in most states still allow teens to get married before turning 18. In New Hampshire, girls can legally wed as young as 13, provided they have permission from their parents and a judge (boys must wait until they're a sage 14). One teen is trying to change that.
Cassandra Levesque, 18, was shocked when she learned middle schoolers could get married in her home state. So she decided to dedicate her capstone Gold Award project as a sash-wearing Girl Scout to fighting the law. Her effort led to an actual bill in New Hampshire's House of Representatives to raise the minimum age for marriage to 18. (Yes, contrary to popular belief, the Girls Scouts are about way more than cookies — but, for the record, this one favors Thin Mints and Tagalongs.)
The rates of teen marriage are, of course, much, much lower here than in other parts of the world. An estimated 58,000 U.S. minors between the ages of 15 and 17 — half of 1% of that population — were married as of 2014, according to Pew Research Center. And New Hampshire’s own records suggest just 14 weddings involving girls under the age of 16 have been reported in the last 20 years. (To put those numbers in perspective, three out of every four girls in Niger, home to one of the world’s worst child marriage rates, will be wed before they turn 18. Globally, the marriage rate for girls in developed nations is believed to be one in three.)
Still, anti-abuse advocates say the absence of laws banning marriage at such young ages puts girls at risk. Levesque agrees. She teamed up with a local legislator to craft a fix, and, this spring, made her case at the state Capitol.
Her bill failed to make it into law. But her effort helped bring national attention to the under-the-radar issue. Ahead, the college-bound teen talks about her entry into activism and what she's learned about making change through policy.
How did you react when you learned that girls could get married so young in New Hampshire?
“I was really surprised. I showed it to my parents, and they were surprised, as well. I remember when I was 13, getting into puberty and all those changes. I just couldn’t imagine putting marriage on top of that. I always thought when someone got married they’re, like, much older than 13 — like 30s.”
So how did this go from a research project to an actual bill?
“I contacted my local representative, Jackie Cilley, and we set up a meeting. I talked about my project, told her what I found out, showed her some of my research. Then her team did some research about child marriage, and realized [addressing the issue was] much bigger than we thought — it’s actually dealing with judges and all this other stuff.”
People often refer to the messy legislative process as sausage-making. What did you learn about how laws are made from getting so involved?
“That it is difficult to create a bill, especially if you aren’t a representative or a lawyer. Jackie Cilley made me a copy of the [draft] bill. I read it over, and I understood maybe, like, 50% of it. You need a lawyer to understand it, or someone to decode it! Testifying [at the bill's hearing] was really interesting because it’s not like I pictured, which was the committee as, like, a huge group of people. Actually, it’s just a small group of representatives that focus on that subject. They definitely were polite and they let everybody be heard, and it definitely was a lot different than I thought it was going to be.”
Were there skills you learned in Girl Scouts that helped you in this effort?
“I used to be really quiet. I was the quietest person in the troop and so I learned to have a voice and be the loudest girl in my troop. I’ve become more comfortable.”
Some opponents said, look we think 13 is too young, but judges are approving these in very rare circumstances. What’s your response?
“We do need the law because it protects the children. I was a child, a month ago! Around my age, 16 through 18, we’re taught you’re going to be an adult soon, but when we try to do something that is adult we’re told, ‘Oh no, you can’t do that.’ But yet here we are allowing 13 year olds who are just starting puberty and are still in middle school and still have posters and stuffed animals in their room to get married. And I’m sorry, but if someone still believes in Santa and the tooth fairy and all those other things, they shouldn’t be able to get married.”
What was it like when the bill failed?
“I was there, and when I heard they were going to kill the bill, I was a little upset. I was angry, just trying to figure out why would they kill it. I met up with Jackie, and she asked me, ‘Do you want to keep fighting? If you don’t that’s fine.’ And I said I want to keep fighting this.”
“All the representatives that have helped me with this, we’re all going to meet up and figure out a way to bring this back. I have to wait two years to bring it up again.”
What advice do you have for other teens who want to get involved in changing policy?
“There are going to be some people who will go against you and who will say, 'Oh no, you shouldn’t be doing that.’ [Don’t] listen to them. They’re just a small group of people. Listen to those saying, ‘Do it, keep fighting for it, keep going for it.’”
This interview has been edited and condensed.