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Legislative panel shoots down South Dakota bill to raise the age for marriage to 18

PIERRE, S.D. (AP) — Sixteen- and 17-year-olds call still wed in South Dakota after a legislative committee shot down an effort to raise the age of marriage to 18.

The House State Affairs Committee on Monday voted 8-5 to reject the bill and let stand the current law, which lets 16- and 17-year-olds marry if they have the consent of a parent or guardian, KELO-TV reported.

“The statistics speak volumes,” the prime sponsor, Democratic Rep. Kadyn Wittman, of Sioux Falls, told the committee. Between 2000 and 2020, 838 minors got married in South Dakota, according to the state Office of Vital Records, and 81% were minor girls being wed to adult men, she said.

But Republican Rep. Gary Cammack, of Union Center, said he wed his wife when she was 17 and their marriage has lasted 52 years. He said the state's existing guardrails should be sufficient.

Norman Woods of South Dakota Family Voice Action said it doesn't make sense to raise the age for marriage if the age of consent in South Dakota remains at 16.

"So if you raise the marriage age to eighteen, you as a state would be saying, ‘You can hook up, but you can’t get married,’ and again, we would caution against that,” he said.

Wittman said Call For Freedom, an anti-sex-trafficking group, supported the legislation, though she didn't specifically propose it to fight child exploitation and sex trafficking.

"This bill is brought because I was genuinely shocked to discover it is still on our books that 16-year-olds can get married in our state. Trying to eliminate or mitigate sexual exploitation of children is just a benefit to this specific piece of legislation,” she said.

Research by Call for Freedom found that nearly 300,000 minors were legally married in the U.S. between 2000 and 2018. A few were as young as 10, but nearly all were age 16 or 17. Most were girls wed to adult men an average of four years older.

According to the Tahirih Justice Center, a nonprofit that works to end child marriages, 10 states ban marriages under age 18 with no exceptions. But more than half the states allow people ages 16 and 17 to marry with parental consent alone. Five states don't set age floors. The group says statutory exceptions for parental consent, which can hide parental coercion, and for pregnancy, which can be evidence of rape, can facilitate forced marriages.

Since 2016, when Virginia became first state to limit marriage to legal adults, 34 states have enacted laws to end or limit child marriage, the center says.