State Representative Monica Stonier with forced marriage survivors
State Representative Monica Stonier (D-49th District: Clark County) stands with forced marriage survivors and human rights activists during a "chain-in" demonstration at the Washington State Capitol (Photo: Andrew Villeneuve/NPI)

Sur­vivors of forced mar­riage and sex­u­al abuse stood side by side with human rights activists on Thurs­day at the Wash­ing­ton State Capi­tol to call for the pas­sage of a bill that would make eigh­teen the min­i­mum legal age to get mar­ried — leg­is­la­tion that NPI’s research has found eight in ten Wash­ing­to­ni­ans sup­port.

Orga­nized by Unchained At Last and the Wash­ing­ton Coali­tion to End Child Mar­riage (of which NPI is a mem­ber), the demon­stra­tion served as a pow­er­ful and time­ly reminder to the Wash­ing­ton State Sen­ate of the impor­tance of tak­ing up House Bill 1455, which the House of Rep­re­sen­ta­tives has now passed unan­i­mous­ly twice — once last year and once this year.

Two Demo­c­ra­t­ic sen­a­tors — Sen­a­tor Derek Stan­ford and Sen­a­tor Man­ka Dhin­gra, a North­west Pro­gres­sive Foun­da­tion board­mem­ber — vis­it­ed the demon­stra­tion and stood in sol­i­dar­i­ty with the sur­vivors and activists, as did Demo­c­ra­t­ic State Rep­re­sen­ta­tive Mon­i­ca Stonier, the prime spon­sor of HB 1455.

The North­west News Net­work, Fox 13, and The Seat­tle Times joined the North­west Pro­gres­sive Insti­tute in cov­er­ing the demon­stra­tion, which Unchained At Last calls a chain-in. They are so named because many par­tic­i­pants wear fake chains and wed­ding gowns (and also put tape over their mouths) to call atten­tion to peo­ple trapped in forced mar­riages, includ­ing many who are minors.

Chain-ins are “a unique form of peace­ful but pow­er­ful protest that Unchained intro­duced in 2015,” the non­prof­it explains on its web­site. To date, more than a dozen chain-ins have been held in oth­er states, many of which have gone on to adopt leg­is­la­tion pro­hibit­ing child mar­riage (most­ly in New England).

Wash­ing­ton could soon be the first state in the West to fol­low suit.

Unchained At Last has been lob­by­ing to end child mar­riage for near­ly a decade. The non­prof­it “had been found­ed in 2011 by a forced mar­riage sur­vivor with a mis­sion of pro­vid­ing free legal and social ser­vices to help indi­vid­u­als in the U.S. to escape forced mar­riages – but more and more girls, under age eigh­teen, were reach­ing out to Unchained to plead for the same help,” the orga­ni­za­tion explains.

“At the time, child mar­riage was legal in all fifty U.S. states, a fact that seemed lost on pol­i­cy­mak­ers and advo­cates. Yet there is almost noth­ing Unchained can do to help a girl who is not yet eigh­teen to escape a forced mar­riage. Even a day before her eigh­teenth birth­day, a girl in the U.S. typ­i­cal­ly can­not leave home, enter a domes­tic vio­lence shel­ter or even file for divorce.”

Unchained says child mar­riage is a big prob­lem because:

  • Child mar­riage can eas­i­ly be forced marriage
  • Child mar­riage is a human rights abuse that destroys Amer­i­can girls’ lives
  • Child mar­riage under­mines statu­to­ry rape laws

Child mar­riage is more com­mon than you might think.

Between 2000 and 2018, 4,831 chil­dren got mar­ried in Wash­ing­ton State. That’s right: Four thou­sand, eight hun­dred and thir­ty-one chil­dren got mar­ried. Legal­ly. And most of them were under­age girls being wed to old­er men.

Ida­ho saw even more child mar­riages dur­ing that times­pan… 5,160. Ore­gon saw some­what few­er: 3,591. Across the three Pacif­ic North­west states, that’s 13,582 child mar­riages in less than two decades. Ore­gon requires minors to be sev­en­teen to be mar­ried, while Ida­ho requires them to be seventeen.

Shock­ing­ly, Wash­ing­ton has nev­er set any min­i­mum age at all. The min­i­mum age to get mar­ried in the Ever­green State is cur­rent­ly zero. We’ve got to change that. The adop­tion of House Bill 1455 will ensure that both par­ties in a mar­riage in Wash­ing­ton State are at least eigh­teen years of age.

After the demon­stra­tion con­clud­ed, I spoke with sev­er­al sur­vivors of forced mar­riages, includ­ing two from Wash­ing­ton State. Two agreed to speak on the record to the North­west Pro­gres­sive Insti­tute and describe their escapes.

Here’s Kate’s story:

My name is Kate Yang. I am the twelve year old bride from Wash­ing­ton State. I am Hmong American.

I am a moth­er and I am a child mar­riage sur­vivor. At age eleven, my par­ents moved me to the Wash­ing­ton State to live with rel­a­tives. I was giv­en less than twen­ty-four hours notice to depart.

At age twelve, I became a twelve-year-old bride.

I was giv­en a child mar­riage, and I was sold for $6,000.

From the start to end of my child mar­riage, for eleven years, I was men­tal­ly, sex­u­al­ly, and phys­i­cal­ly abused on a dai­ly basis by my child mar­riage hus­band. At age four­teen, I suf­fered a mis­car­riage due to beat­ings from my child mar­riage husband.

At age fif­teen, I gave birth to my first child. At age sev­en­teen, I gave birth to my sec­ond child and grad­u­at­ed from high school in Kirk­land, Wash­ing­ton. I was a pris­on­er in the only com­mu­ni­ty that I knew, the Hmong com­mu­ni­ty. The abuse was so bad that the thought of end­ing my life felt like it could be freedom.

At age twen­ty-two, I start­ed my first quar­ter at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Wash­ing­ton. They say that knowl­edge is power.

[Among the] many things that the Uni­ver­si­ty of Wash­ing­ton taught me is that I am enough, and smart enough, to save myself from my child mar­riage, my prison. I real­ized in that moment that help was not com­ing, that I need­ed to find the courage to save myself.

I had to at least try to do it for my children.

I found my voice for the first time after eleven years of abuse at age twen­ty-three. I picked up the phone, I dialed 911 for the first time, and I escaped with my children.

I am blessed to be here today, and blessed to be able to share my sto­ry with all of you. I would like to thank the two non­prof­its who have pro­vid­ed me with men­tal health sup­port dur­ing this time.

Thank you to Unchained At Last and Project Be Free from Ren­ton, Wash­ing­ton. I am for­ev­er grate­ful. As a child mar­riage sur­vivor, I’m here today to let the Amer­i­can peo­ple know that child mar­riage does exist in Amer­i­ca, that child mar­riage does exist in Wash­ing­ton State, and that child mar­riage does exist in Kirk­land, Wash­ing­ton, the home of Cost­co. Please help us end child mar­riage. Thank you.

And here’s Stephanie’s story:

My name is Stephanie, and I am a sur­vivor of forced mar­riage. I was mar­ried just after my twen­ti­eth birth­day, and I was born and raised inside of the fun­da­men­tal­ist evan­gel­i­cal move­ment where girls are groomed and trained to be wife [wives] and moth­ers and so when that time came I met my hus­band when I was eigh­teen and we were we were mar­ried by the time we were twen­ty. We knew that if we did­n’t get mar­ried we would lose our entire com­mu­ni­ty of people.

So, although I was­n’t forced with, you know, I did­n’t have any­thing, I did­n’t have a gun against me or any­thing like that, but I was forced and coerced because my com­mu­ni­ty said this was my job, this was my call­ing as a woman, to hon­or God by get­ting mar­ried and hav­ing kids. So, that’s what I did.

I remem­ber talk­ing to my mom and dad and say­ing, I want to go to col­lege and they told me that’s not, you know, you’re, you’re not smart enoughyou’re going to get mar­ried and you’re so beau­ti­ful — God gave you beau­ty so that you’d find a hus­band.

So I got mar­ried and we had kids. I have three kids and we stayed in the church for a real­ly long time. And we… I don’t, I don’t say that peo­ple leave the evan­gel­i­cal church. I say that peo­ple escape it because when you leave you lose every­thing and I lost my family.

I lost my faith fam­i­ly. We lost our friends. And this was about four years ago. In fact, Feb­ru­ary will be four years. But it’s imper­a­tive. I mean, I knew three girls, grow­ing up that got mar­ried, one at fif­teen, one at and two at sev­en­teen. And one was nev­er heard from again and the oth­er used my wed­ding as a way to escape her abuser, who took her to Flori­da and beat her every day for two years.

So, it’s so impor­tant that HB 1455 get passed, because although I was twen­ty, this would have impact­ed the girls that I knew. And this is still going on. The archa­ic ways, the patri­ar­chal ways. Misog­y­nist ways are still being taught inside the walls of evan­gel­i­cal church­es and it’s being used as a way of con­ver­sion ther­a­py for the queer com­mu­ni­ty, so it’s imper­a­tive that this be passed.

NPI thanks these incred­i­bly brave sur­vivors for speak­ing out and advo­cat­ing for this impor­tant, nec­es­sary leg­is­la­tion. Secur­ing the pas­sage of House Bill 1455 is a top leg­isla­tive pri­or­i­ty for our team in 2024, and we look for­ward to get­ting this bill to Gov­er­nor Jay Inslee’s desk so it can be signed into law.

About the author

Andrew Villeneuve is the founder and executive director of the Northwest Progressive Institute, as well as the founder of NPI's sibling, the Northwest Progressive Foundation. He has worked to advance progressive causes for over two decades as a strategist, speaker, author, and organizer. Andrew is also a cybersecurity expert, a veteran facilitator, a delegate to the Washington State Democratic Central Committee, and a member of the Climate Reality Leadership Corps.

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