Marriage age battle in the Fono

No clear historical record of why marriage age for females is set at 14 in Territory
fili@samoanews.com

Pago Pago, AMERICAN SAMOA — Current law setting the marriage age for females at 14-years old, with the consent of a parent or guardian, was passed by the Fono many years ago during the Seventh Legislature, says Senate legal counsel, Mitzie Jessop-Ta’ase in testimony before a Senate committee recently.

However, the lingering question remains — why is it set at 14 years old for females — even when the move to raise the marrying legal age began some six years ago? 

The Senate rejected the approved House bill setting the marriage age of both females and males at 18 years old last week Monday, and 24-hours later the House requested a conference committee that was later rejected by the Senate because senators didn’t make any changes to the House bill.

Conference committees are usually called and convened to iron out final language of a bill, if both sides don’t agree on changes made by the other chamber. In this case, the Senate didn’t make any changes to the bill, which was rejected with seven senators in support and nine opposing it.

During the Senate committee, Sen. Fai’ivae Iuli Godinet asked if research was done into why the marriage age for females was set at 14 years old to which Jessop-Ta’ase said she researched the initial law, which was approved by the Fono during the 7th Legislature.

However, she said she couldn’t locate written records for any other information.

It was noted by some senators that “our [Samoan] ancestors” were married at a very young age many years ago, but no one offered any other information.

Later in the hearing, Fai’ivae asked if there are any states that legalize marriage at age 14, to which Jessop-Ta’ase explained that her license to practice law is from Utah, where 14-year olds are allowed to marry under special conditions. She was not asked and she didn’t go into details on the specific conditions.

Samoa News has reached out to several senior citizens in the community about the law allowing marriage at 14, and those who responded could only say that it wasn’t uncommon many years ago, when Samoans were married young, such as 16 or 17 years old.

However, those who spoke with Samoa News declined to speculate as to why our forefathers set the marriage age at 14 for females. One female senior citizen told Samoa News that decisions made by “our forefathers in those days shouldn’t be second guessed, or even questioned today, as they made the best decision they saw fit at the time” and it’s the responsibility of future generation to make necessary changes in a continually changing world.

Some long-time political observers agreed with the assessment, but also noted that current existing laws, and today’s environment take very seriously cases where a 14-year old becomes the victim of a sexual offense.

One political observer pointed to Jessop-Ta’ase’s testimony during the Senate hearing that allowing a 14-year old to marry, with consent of a parent/ guardian, conflicts with the current criminal code where the consent age for a sexual relation is 17-years old (see Samoa News edition Mar. 21st for details).

Another political observer noted that, “statutory rape is a more important issue as far as the age of girls and sexual consent.”

Among the concerns raised during the Senate hearing is what would happen, if current law is changed, to a 14-year old girl who is pregnant, and the parents want her married to the father of the unborn child.

ASG digital archives compiled by the American Samoa Historic Preservation Office and available online, show that the 7th Legislature was from 1961 to 1962. At the time, the US Interior Department appointed-governor submitted an annual fiscal year report to the Interior Secretary.

The reports from the governor, includes a section on the Legislature and summarized the number of bills and other measures introduced, passed and enacted into law. The bill gives only brief titles of each measure but no further explanation. Samoa News could not identify in reports specific issues pertaining to a bill approved at the time for female marriage at 14 years old.

However, the 1962 report says that of the 29 bills signed by the governor that became public law, is a bill on “Domestic Relations” — but again, no additional information was provided in the report.

Samoa News notes: current American Samoa Code Annotated, or statute shows Title 42 — “Domestic Relations”, and Chapter 01 outlines the specific provisions of the law on “Marriage”, with provision 42.0101 for Requisites of Valid Marriage. And under this provision shows the marriage age of females at 14 years old.

Comment Here