On Oct. 17, 1983, Trevicia Williams was married. She was 14 years old.
Before that day, she had been a ninth-grader at Aldine Senior High School in Houston. She was at the top of her class and had had plans to be a prosecuting attorney.
Williams, now 47, recalled being picked up from school by her mother one afternoon and being told she was getting married. She was then brought before a justice of the peace and married off to an ex-convict and current registered sex offender — 12 years her senior. She said she never received an answer from her mother on why she was forced into the marriage.
“My mom was very authoritative and not one you would question,” Williams said. “If I had two words to describe how I felt that day, it would be uneasy and nervous."
Concerns about the alarming number of child brides have led 12 other states to ban marriage under the age of 16. In 2016, Virginia became the first state to adopt a policy increasing the minimum age of marriage to 18, and on Tuesday, a similar bill championed by Williams in the Texas Legislature reached Gov. Greg Abbott's desk.
“A child should be a child for as long as they can. Children are not psychologically nor physically capable of taking on the responsibilities of being a spouse,” she said in an interview with The Texas Tribune. “It’s important children have a safety net.”
Senate Bill 1705 by state Sen. Van Taylor, R-Plano, would prohibit a person under 18 years of age from marrying unless a judge consents. It also would prohibit anyone under 16 from getting married. Currently Texas has no statutory age “floor” — meaning a judge could approve a child of any age to marry.
The measure passed both the Senate and the House with little opposition.
Under current law, Texas residents have to be at least 18 to independently consent to marriage. Between ages 16 and 18, parental consent is required to get a marriage license.
But the laws fail to prioritize child protection in several ways, advocates say. For example, parental consent (which can hide parental coercion) is enough for a clerk to issue a marriage license to a 16- or 17-year-old, and the consent of only one parent is acceptable, according to the Tahirih Justice Center, a nonprofit that helps abused women and children.
The House sponsor of the bill, state Rep. Senfronia Thompson, D-Houston, told the Tribune she filed the legislation because she wanted to help give minors “a shot at life.”
“We want to give these kids an opportunity to make a choice. Their choice,” Thompson said. “When you marry someone who’s 15 years old to someone who’s 50, you haven’t given her a chance to be a young lady, grow up and enjoy all those things leading up to their 18th birthday. You cut her short of those opportunities.”
Jeanne Smoot, the senior counsel and policy strategist for Tahirih, said Texas has one of the highest rates of child marriages in the country. Nearly 40,000 children younger than 18 were married in Texas between 2000 and 2014, she said.
“The passage of this bill helps ensure the only marriages going forward are adults or emancipated minors,” Smoot said. “It’ll prevent — rather than facilitate — the forced marriage of children.”
Williams said no child should be forced into marriage.
“Childhood is for learning and development, not devotion to a man,” Williams said. “Every child deserves his or her right to naturally grow, develop and mature into adults.”
Williams recalled being physically and psychologically abused throughout her marriage. She said the first time her husband hit her, she called her mother and asked to come home. Her mother said no.
When Williams was 15, she became pregnant with her daughter. A year later, her husband was incarcerated. And a few days after she turned 17, she filed for divorce.
She was granted approval in August 1987.
“I had to endure the abuse until I was able to free myself and escape from the marriage,” Williams said.
Williams later went to college and earned a doctorate in psychology. She also founded Real Beauty Inside Out, which helps prevent coerced marriages by helping mothers and daughters have healthy relationships.
“I’m all about protecting the rights of childhood and the potential of girls and children,” Williams said. “I think it’s so amazing that this bill will help preserve and protect the lives of girls in the future.”
Read related Tribune coverage:
- Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton said more should be done to help sex-trafficking victims and protect vulnerable children in Texas — but that it's not up to him to fund those efforts.
- Texas Tribune reporters talked to three convicted traffickers to try to understand the power they wield over victims and the attraction of what they call "the lifestyle." Here they are in their own words.