Unchained At Last brings their message to lawmakers outside the state Capitol Credit: Hugh McQuaid photo

The Senate Friday unanimously approved banning anyone under the age of 18 from getting married, sending the bill to Gov. Ned Lamont for approval. The bill closes exceptions the legislature carved out in 2017, when it raised the minimum age for marriage to 18 but allowed for 16- and 17-year-olds to do so with parental approval. 

If signed into law, Connecticut would become the eighth state in the country, and fourth in New England, to prohibit minors from getting married. 

“We know that when these things happen, they have a detrimental impact and the consequences are far reaching,” Sen. Herron Gaston, D-Bridgeport, said. 

Gaston told the Senate that his own sister, at the age of 14, was married to a 50-year-old man while living in Saint Lucia. 

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He said the man forced his sister to drop out of school and “really robbed her of her youthfulness and her childhood.” They ultimately had five kids. 

But as her husband got older, Gaston’s sister convinced him to let her go to Florida to get some vocational skills so he could care for her. Once in Florida, she was able to get support from family and never went back. 

But Gaston said the physical and mental abuse continues to take its toll on her. 

“She hasn’t been able to keep a job,” he said. “She has become incredibly dependent because that’s the world that she lived in, the environment that she understood.” 

Sen. Tony Hwang, R-Fairfield, said the practice is far less common in Connecticut, but he supported the bill as an important stance. 

“We’re sending a symbolic message that cultural norms that may have existed in our history, that may have existed in other countries, should not and cannot continue to exist,” he said. 

Members of Unchained At Last, an advocacy group pushing for an end to child marriages, were at the Capitol for Friday’s vote. They were wearing bridal dresses, hoping to bring attention to the bill ahead of Wednesday’s end to the legislative session, 

One member, who only gave her name as “Jen,” said she was just 14 when a friend of her father’s started grooming her for a sexual relationship. 

Jen, who grew up in the South, became pregnant at 16 and her parents pushed her into marriage. They even brought her to a local courthouse to sign off on the marriage certificate. 

“Even though I was standing there, a 16-year-old girl with a 44-year-old man, nobody asked any questions,” she said. 

But Jen said she grew up in an abusive household and couldn’t find a way out. Then, she joined the Navy as an escape. 

“I was so ignorant and so backwards that I didn’t even know the different branches did things,” she said. “I didn’t even know the Navy only had boats.” 

Now 44, Jen moved to the Northeast 15 years ago. Friday, she was one of a group of advocates with the group Unchained At Last, which advocates for states raising their age of marriage. 

Fraidy Reiss, founder and executive director of Unchained At Last, said that 1,251 minors were married between 2000 and 2021. 

While the bill cruised the Senate unanimously, it did get a 98 to 45 vote in the House of Representatives. Reiss was surprised by the vote. 

“This level of resistance, in a state like Connecticut, frankly is shocking,” she said. 

Massachusetts last year raised its age to 18. Fellow Northeast states New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, and Vermont have also raised the age or eliminated exceptions in recent years.