RALEIGH, N.C. (WNCN) — Advocacy groups want North Carolina legislators to change state laws that allow children as young as 14 years old to get married.

The International Center for Research on Women recently released a study of marriage license applications for the 50 counties in North Carolina that had available data from 2000-19.

During that span, researchers said they found 3,949 applications involving 4,218 minors submitted in those counties, with roughly 93 percent of those applications for marriage between a minor and an adult.

The group found that the vast majority — nearly 99 percent — of the minors applying for marriage licenses were either 16 or 17. 

But of the 70 marriages in which one of the parties was 15 or younger, had sex occurred outside of marriage, 40 would have been classified as felony violations of the state’s statutory rape laws — either Class B1, which is more serious, or Class C — due to the age differences between them.

“This happens so much more often than we thought it did,” said Lyric Thompson, one of the authors of the ICRW’ report titled “Child Marriage in North Carolina: New Evidence and Policy Recommendations.”

Drew Reisinger, the register of deeds for Buncombe County, said those state laws mean “we’ve essentially become a sanctuary state for statutory rape.”

“If we can’t prove something is happening,” he said, “we can’t get legislators to change it.”

Jeanne Smoot of the Tahirih Justice Center, a Virginia-based nonprofit that advocates for immigrant women and girls who face violence and persecution, said only five states have low age floors for marriage, and of those North Carolina and Alaska have the lowest at 14.

According to chapter 51-2 of the North Carolina General Statutes, those over 16 and under 18 may marry with parental consent, and under 51-2.1, those over 14 and under 16 who are either pregnant or already parents themselves can marry if they receive a court order.

Smoot said 25 states have enacted new laws to end or limit child marriage, and she wants the state to prohibit marriages for those under 18 without exception, and create alternative reforms that would empower minors, allowing them to advocate for themselves and safeguard them from harm.

She said more than 200,000 children under 18 were married between 2000-15, the vast majority of those being girls marrying adult men. She said child marriage frequently leads to higher dropout rates from high school and college, an increased risk of medical and mental health problems and a vulnerability to violence and poverty and a divorce rate of roughly 80 percent.

“We are now, only now really, in a position to demonstrate for North Carolina what these laws have meant, and what the fallout has been,” Smoot said.

The ICRW also recommends the removal of the pregnancy exception that applies to those between 14 and 16, calling it “antiquated.”

“It is happening here, and there are solutions,” Thompson said. “All the issues that we work on … this is one that is preventable. It is endable. We have tested the solutions.”