Lawmakers hear support from health officials to amend legal marriage age for girls
Department of Youth and Women’s Affairs director Leiataua Leuga Turner supports a House bill that would amend current law to increase the age of a female to be married from 14 to 17 years of age. However, she suggests increasing the age even further upward, to either 18 or 19 years old.
On the other hand, Attorney General Fepuleai A. Ripley Jr., offers no opinion on the bill, leaving the final decision up to the Fono.
Current law states that the marriage age of a female is 14 years old; for a male, the age is 17. Any person under the age of 18 requires consent by a parent or legal guardian.
Asked by the committee for his opinion on the bill, Fepuleai said that he had contacted the Office of Vital Statistics for data on marriage and was told by an official at that office that the majority of females marry at 18 years or older. He said he has no opinion to offer on the bill and it’s up to the Fono if they want to amend the current law.
Leiataua says she personally supports this proposal, especially for the fact that 14 years is too young for marriage, and at this age, the young person’s brain is not fully developed to make a judgement call when it comes to motherhood, compared to an individual who is over 21 years old.
She also said she has worked with youth and families over the last 20 years and she has seen incidents where the new mother was as young as 11 years old. She also shared with lawmakers the serious issue American Samoa faces with an increase in teen pregnancy, saying these youngsters are not fully equipped to take care of an infant.
She pointed out that some parents have consented to marriage for their children under the age of 18, but then, two years later the young couple is divorced.
She also pointed to statistics that of 1,000 babies born every year, between 300 and 400 are born to teen mothers, who at times end up forced to marry to the father of the baby.
The bill’s sponsor Rep. Lemapu Suiaunoa Talo said the current age of 14 was enacted in 1962 but times have changed since then and that is the reason he introduced the amendment. He agreed with Leiataua that 14-years of age is too young to be married because the youngster’s mind is not mature yet to make the many decisions faced by a mother in caring for a young infant.
Dr. John Tuitele, who works with Department of Health told the committee that he also supports the measure, as well as Leiataua’s suggestion of increasing the age to 18 or older. From the medical standpoint, he said, 14-years old is just way too young and teen mothers have a habit of not following up with the required check ups with their doctors, or following physician’s medical advice.
Health Department acting director Seiuli Elisapeta Ponausuia said she, too, supports increasing the age because of the health issues surrounding pregnancy at the young age of 14, which is too young to be having a baby.
Some committee members also voiced their concern that the current marriage age for females is in conflict with another statute, in which a suspect would be charged with statutory rape if the victim is 16 years or younger.
When asked for his opinion, Fepuleai said he believes there is no conflict of interest, adding that these are two separate laws. He reiterated that he does not have an opinion on the proposed amendment and reminded lawmakers that the current law allows a 14-year old to get married as long as there is parental consent.
The House committee adopted to hold further discussion on the measure before taking any action to report to the full membership.
The unanswered question, which has been discussed throughout the community after this measure was first introduced, is why American Samoa set the marriage age for a female at age 14 in the first place, when it is such a young age.