Tammy Monteiro was a 15-year-old foster child with an unstable mother and an incarcerated father when she met the man who would make her his bride. He was 25.
“This grown man now was showing an interest in me and teaching me what he knew from his Bible. He claimed I was chosen, part of God’s chosen people,” she said.
She didn’t understand then the tenets of his extremist sect — that she would be expected to cover her head, eat a certain diet, refrain from socializing. She was already pregnant with the first of his eight sons when her mother signed off on her marriage at a New Bedford courthouse.
“I underwent a grooming period where he filled me up with his doctrine,” she said. “I received a new name: Raiyah. And I was told over and over again that women were the cause of all evils in the world and that through woman, mankind has fallen.”
Now 36 and living out of state, Monteiro testified at a State House committee hearing Tuesday about a Senate bill that would prevent minors from getting married in Massachusetts. Currently, some under 18 can marry with the consent of at least one parent.
Senator Harriette Chandler, a Worcester Democrat and lead sponsor, said parents sometimes allow — or even encourage — children to marry before they have the legal resources or financial independence to navigate the world.
“Minors, married or not, do not have access to legal remedies to the same extent as their adult counterparts,” Chandler said. “Minors cannot obtain a driver’s license or a photo ID, they cannot open a bank account or credit card, or even access their own judicial remedies without parental consent.”
Representative Kay Khan, a Newton Democrat, noted that it’s difficult for a teenager to extract herself from a problematic marriage. A minor can’t file for divorce or annulment, seek an abuse prevention order, rent an apartment, or open a checking account, she noted. “A minor cannot purchase cigarettes, vote, or serve on a jury,” she added. “Yet they can marry.”
Since she realized three years ago how lax the law is, Khan began pushing legislation to block child marriages and documenting their prevalence with data from the Department of Public Health Vital Records Office.
Between 2000 and 2016, she said, 1,231 Massachusetts minors got married. Some of them were as young as 14. Most of them — 1,030 — were girls who married adult men, including a 17-year-old who married a 39-year-old, she said.
Monteiro was the first Massachusetts woman to publicly tell her story of child marriage at the State House, spurring a groundswell of emotion from the Joint Committee on Children, Families, and Persons with Disabilities on Tuesday.
State Senator Sonia Chang-Diaz, the Senate chair of the committee, told Monteiro: “I’m sorry that the state failed you.”
State Representative Michael J. Soter, a Bellingham Republican, choked up when talking about his mother’s decision to get married as a pregnant 16-year-old.
“She thought she was doing the right thing,” said Soter, who noted that his mother was later happily remarried to the man who would become his father. “I just want to make sure that those protections are in this because there are going to be situations that folks are trying to do the right thing. I don’t want to see them get penalized.”
But Khan said there would be no exceptions written into the bill, “which will draw a bright line so that there can be no marriages under the age of 18.” Two states — New Jersey and Delaware — have already enacted similar laws.
Monteiro suggested that teenagers delay the decision to marry, even in cases of pregnancy. “Why not just wait a couple years?” Monteiro said. “You love each other. You have a firm commitment.” She and others pointed to elevated risks of domestic violence, poverty, and divorce for those who marry young.
Fraidy Reiss, the founder of an organization that opposes child marriage, called Unchained At Last, said pregnancy is the top reason teenagers are forced into marriage.
“Unfortunately, the pregnancy exception to the marriage age has been used to cover up rape and force girls to marry their rapists,” she added.
Cassandra Levesque, who crusaded against child marriage in New Hampshire as a Girl Scout, pointed to the “devastating effects of child marriage, that these effects are generational, and that there are no good outcomes to these marriages.”
“We also need to keep in mind that the majority of these marriages are not between children. They’re usually marriages between a child and an adult, and 70 to 80 percent end in divorce,” she said. Levesque was elected to the New Hampshire legislature at 19 after launching her campaign against child marriage. New Hampshire lawmakers rejected the bill she had encouraged, which would have barred marriage before age 18, but instead inched the age up to 16 (from 13 for girls and 14 for boys). Levesque is now introducing another ban as a legislator.
Soter said he wholeheartedly supports the bill.