Which state laws are the most lenient for child brides?
He was a 19-year-old high school dropout struggling to find steady work. She was a 14-year-old middle schooler, pregnant with his baby.
Pressured by her mother who didn’t want her grandchild born out of wedlock, Evie Lane was married in 1985, the summer before her ninth grade year. The couple was dirt poor, moving in with her family and, then, his, and the relationship soon soured, Lane told a panel of state senators Thursday.
“I had no choice, no voice,” said Lane, now 48. “He had complete control.”
The Florence native said she was telling her story to a state Senate Judiciary Committee panel to illustrate why the General Assembly should pass a proposed law outlawing child marriages.
Such marriages have been legal in South Carolina for decades because of a 1962 law that allows pregnant, underage girls to marry older men. Nearly 7,000 underage girls — some as young as 12 — have married older men over the past 20 years in South Carolina,.
Such arrangements “have devastating, lifelong consequences for individuals and also undermine the health and well-being of our families and communities,” testified Ann Warner, chief executive of the Columbia-based Women’s Rights and Empowerment Network. “Women who are married as children have much higher divorce rates, higher school dropout rates, an increased risk of poverty, more medical and mental health problems, and a greater vulnerability to domestic violence.”
The Senate subcommittee on Thursday passed a proposal by state Sen. Katrina Shealy, R-Lexington, to change the 1962 law – the first of several approvals needed before the bill becomes law. State Rep. Beth Bernstein, D-Richland, has introduced an identical bill in the S.C. House. It will get a subcommittee hearing next Thursday.
Senators also were urged Thursday to take the proposal further by raising the minimum age for marriage in South Carolina to 18 with no exceptions. Currently, a S.C. 16 year old can get married if his or her parent signs off on it — or if the girl is pregnant.
During the past two decades, six out of every seven underage girls married in South Carolina were at least 16, Warner said.
“Statistically, 16- or 17-year-old girls are among the most vulnerable people to intimate partner violence,” Warner said. “Yet they are the least protected by the current law, and this change would not protect them.”
State Sens. Shealy and Brad Hutto, D-Orangeburg, agreed. They pledged to file a separate bill to raise the minimum age for marriage to 18. Keeping the bills separate might give the pregnancy bill a better chance of passing, Shealy said.
“We’ve had a rough week for women here in the state of South Carolina,” Shealy said, referencing a committee hearing Wednesday in which a pro-life advocate opposed hanging a photo of female lawmakers because, he said, women aren’t fit for public office. “Because we are in the state of South Carolina, sometimes we have to make baby steps.”
Lane said she prays the bill passes.
She dropped out of high school after her marriage and became pregnant again within a year. She got her children’s clothes at the Salvation Army and depended on her husband to pay the bills, leaving her at his control, she said. Her first two children grew up watching their parents fight, Lane said.
The third, 27-year-old Marisa Lane, traveled to Columbia on Thursday to support her mother as Evie Lane testified before the Senate panel.
Evie Lane said she, eventually, got her GED high school equivalency degree, an associate’s degree from Florence-Darlington Technical College and a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice from Limestone College.
She remains married to her husband, though they separated in 2017, Lane said. It didn’t happen sooner, she said, in part because she feared losing her children.
Lane said she loves her children but hopes girls who find themselves in her shoes aren’t forced to follow her path.
“It will end the cycle of what I went through,” Lane said of Shealy’s bill, “the cycle of little girls being hurt.”