If you’ve driven past the electronic billboard on Northgate Mile near North Holmes Avenue lately, you may have noticed an ad showing a young girl holding a wedding bouquet with the words “Don’t Marry Me Off” and a link to girlawake.com/end-child-marriage.
Similar billboards have also been put up in Post Falls and Boise. They were the brainchild of Gracie Messier, a Coeur d’Alene High School senior who has been researching child marriage since last year.
Messier said she became interested in the issue after performing in a play named the “Girl, Awake Project!” which discussed child marriage statistics. She said he has been surprised by much of what she has been learned in the course of her research. She was shocked to find out child marriage was legal in the first place, even though the U.S. has been part of efforts to combat it internationally.
“I didn’t know that as a 17-year-old I could have a voice in this issue and help to make a difference,” she said. “This has become more than a school project to me, but instead something that I have found a passion for, which I did know not would happen upon starting this project.”
Idaho had no minimum marriage age in 2019. Messier kept looking into the issue and came across a news article about a bill sponsored by Rep. Melissa Wintrow, D-Boise, that would have set a minimum marriage age of 16 and required judicial consent for a 16- or 17-year-old to marry. She reached out to Wintrow to discuss the issue. Later that year, Wintrow’s bill was voted down 28-39 in the House.
“She and all her friends were more than surprised and shocked that the bill didn’t pass,” Wintrow said.
That summer, Messier went to Girls State, a mock government program where 16- and 17-year-old girls write bills and learn about the legislative process. She wrote a child marriage bill similar to Wintrow’s that passed unanimously. Then, Wintrow and Messier co-wrote an op-ed on the topic that ran in newspapers throughout the state. Messier gave a TEDx talk on child marriage last year with the Girl, Awake Project. Then she wrote her senior paper on child marriage, and decided to do her senior project on the topic as well.
“I’m just so pleased,” Wintrow said. “I’m just so proud of her, and it’s been so much fun to work with her.”
Messier’s English teacher connected her with the billboard company YESCO, which agreed to donate ad space. As she was working on the design, her school canceled their senior projects when the school closed due to coronavirus, but Messier decided to press forward.
“After giving it some thought, I knew I needed to keep going on the billboards because child marriage is an important problem and needs to be brought to light,” she said.
From 2014 to 2018, out of 66,517 people who got married in Idaho, 567, or about .85%, were under 18, according to statistics provided by the state Department of Health and Welfare. Most of these marriages involved girls under 18 and older men.
The majority of underaged marriages in 2017 and 2018, years for which DHW provided more detailed numbers, were between partners within a few years of each other, although there were a few with bigger age gaps, such as a 27-year-old man who married a 17-year-old girl in 2017 and a 30-year-old man who married a 16-year-old girl in 2018. The vast majority of minors marrying have been 16 and 17. In 2017, out of the 96 minors who married just three were 14 or 15, according to DHW’s data, and in 2018 none of the 96 minors who married were younger than 16.
As of July 1, Idaho will no longer be among the dozen or so states with no minimum marriage age. Lawmakers overwhelmingly passed a bill this year sponsored by Idaho Falls Republican Reps. Barbara Ehardt and Bryan Zollinger setting a minimum age of 16. The main difference between the new law and Wintrow’s failed proposal is that 16- and 17-year-olds will still be able to marry with just parental consent, which is the current law. Ehardt and Zollinger said they thought Wintrow’s bill went too far in infringing on parental rights but that they opposed child marriage and were inspired to sponsor legislation of their own in part by the backlash after their 2019 “No” votes.
Idaho’s new law is part of a national trend of tightening up restrictions on child marriage. While Idaho was somewhat unusual in not having a minimum marriage age before 2020, almost every state in the country lets people under 18 marry under some circumstances. Delaware and New Jersey set a no-exceptions minimum marriage age of 18 in 2018, and this year Pennsylvania and Minnesota followed suit.
While most states, like Idaho, have been unwilling to ban child marriage entirely, many, also like Idaho, have been taking steps over the past few years to put more restrictions on child marriage. At least seven have set minimum ages of 16 or 17 over the past few years, and others have opted to still allow minors to get married but have added additional restrictions such as setting age ranges or adding judicial review requirements.
Wintrow said she believes the marriage age should be 18 and her 2019 proposal was a compromise between what she supports personally and what she thought might be able to pass.
“I think that court protection was important because most of the girls getting married were 16 and 17,” Wintrow said.
Wintrow said she would like to introduce a bill to set a minimum age of 18 but doesn’t have enough support among her legislative colleagues. She said people who marry as minors are more likely to get divorced and experience worse economic and health outcomes.
“That shows you right there this is not the way to go,” Wintrow said.
Messier said this year’s bill was “an excellent first step” but that “Idaho can do better, and needs to do better.”
“I feel that there needs to be more legislation, not just in Idaho, but in every state in America, that will prevent the endangering of children susceptible to marriage,” she said. “I hope to one day see child marriage banned in all 50 states. We need to let children be children.”