Women Dress in Gowns, Chains to Protest Child-marriage Law
By Elise Takahama
Boston University Statehouse Program
BOSTON -- Tammy Monteiro was 16 years old when she was coerced into marriage with a 25-year-old man. She was 17 when she gave birth to her first of eight sons. She was trapped in her marriage for 20 years, but last year, she finally fought her way out.
“I lived with a man who constantly wanted me in subjection ... I was not able to build a career for myself during my whole marriage,” Monteiro, 36, said at the Statehouse Wednesday. “He was actually able to go out and build a career. I was to be what the Bible states as a ‘keeper at home.’”
During her 20-year marriage with a man who was part of an extremist group, Monteiro said was shunned by her New Bedford community and suffered spiritual and emotional abuse.
On Wednesday morning, Monteiro joined several women to march through the Statehouse in white wedding dresses and chains around their hands, demanding lawmakers support a recent bill that would ban child marriage in Massachusetts.
“Three years ago, I learned that child marriage is happening all around the country, including here in Massachusetts,” the bill’s lead sponsor, Rep. Kay Khan, D-Newton, said in a statement. “If you are a married child and you are still a minor, you do not have adult rights. You cannot file for divorce, annulment, protective order, rent an apartment, open a checking account, or seek services from the Department of Children and Families.”
Due to loopholes in the state’s existing marriage laws, children of any age can marry in Massachusetts, said Fraidy Reiss, the founder and executive director of Unchained At Last, the nonprofit that organized Wednesday’s protest.
Between 2000 and 2016, 1,231 children as young as 14 years old were married in Massachusetts -- most of them girls who were wed to adult men, Reiss said. New Jersey and Delaware are currently the only states in the country to ban child marriage.
Several local legislators have signed on in support.
The state is seeing way too many situations where young women are marrying older men, said Rep. Stephan Hay, D-Fitchburg.
“My biggest concern is that they have no rights. ... Very few of the young women who are getting married at that age are getting married into good situations,” Hay said.
Rep. Tram Nguyen, D-Andover, emphasized that preventing violence against women has always been one of her priorities and that the key now is education.
“Given everything that’s happened since the 2016 election and the Women’s March, more women are engaged politically and more of us are stepping up to the plate to run for office ... And at the end of the day, I don’t want to call them women’s issues, because they’re people’s issues. They’re civil rights issues.”
Rep. Tami Gouveia, D-Acton, who’s the founder of the Massachusetts chapter of the Women’s March on Washington, said she first heard about the bill to end child marriage through her advocacy work.
“So many people are surprised that this still happens in Massachusetts,” she said. “There’s an average of 72 girls per year that get married. It’s not huge numbers, but we’re talking about people’s real lives. We’re talking about their children’s lives, and the fact that most often, they’re the victims of domestic violence, trauma, abuse.”
The bill was heard Tuesday by the Legislature’s Committee on Children, Families and Persons with Disabilities, Gouveia said. While no one spoke up in opposition, a few women stepped forward to share their experiences as child brides, she said.
“It was heart-wrenching. ... Hearing them was really impactful,” Gouveia said. “And they’re really brave for coming out and telling their story. That can’t be easy.”
The House version of the bill will go to a hearing soon, she said.
“These last five years have been me empowering myself, educating myself, reaching out and using the power of my voice to overcome these battles,” Monteiro said after marching through the halls to the governor’s office Wednesday. “I had to restructure the way that I thought, the way that I see the world and the way that I see God. And that’s a very hard thing to do.”