The terrible choice: Child bride or plural wife?

Vancouver Sun/January 25, 2011

Vancouver - The mother faced a terrible choice: Allow her 15-year-old daughter to marry a 19-year-old man she liked or risk having church leaders assign her as a plural wife to a much older man.

The mother chose monogamy for her daughter, even though she herself became a plural wife at 16.

The mother chose monogamy for her daughter, even though she wants the court to strike down the polygamy law.

Why? Although her daughter was too young to be legally married in British Columbia - the law requires a judge's permission for anyone under 16 to marry - the mother wanted her daughter to have someone she cared for.

The mother, known only as Witness #2, testified to her terrible choice Tuesday in B.C. Supreme Court as part of the constitutional reference case to determine whether Canada's polygamy law is valid.

She was the first witness for the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. FLDS witnesses have been guaranteed anonymity to avoid future prosecution.

(The witness's daughter, now 26, no longer shares her mother's faith. Two years after the wedding, she and her partner left the FLDS and Bountiful. They remain together and have two children.)

Trained as a midwife, the witness said she knows nine or 10 American girls under 18 who were sent to Bountiful as brides and an equal number who went from Bountiful to the United States.

Does she consider girls marrying at 16 or younger as child abuse? No, she said, even though she believes girls should wait until they're 18.

She doesn't believe the prophet is infallible, so people can say no to his suggestions for marriage partners, she said. But the witness does believe that a man needs more than one wife to enter the highest realm of heaven.

And as long as polygamy is illegal, she said her family and others will live in poverty with no money for their children's education because so much of what they earn goes to church leaders' legal bills in the United States.

Was she aware that her hard-earned money was paying for the legal defence of men charged with sexually assaulting children?

The witness sighed deeply.

"Yes, I was aware we were choosing to help them out."

Did she know of anyone who couldn't go to post-secondary school because they were denied financial aid, a bursary or scholarship? Again, she sighed. No.

Faced with a long list of occupations that require post-secondary education, the witness couldn't name a single one that anyone from Bountiful had qualified for.

In her affidavit, she said decriminalizing polygamy would also mean her seven-year-old - the youngest of nine - wouldn't have to live in fear of having his father arrested.

But under cross-examination, she admitted that her seven-year-old has virtually no contact with anyone outside Bountiful and that if he's afraid, it's because of what people in Bountiful have told him.

Did anyone tell her child that the 2008 raid resulted in charges against FLDS men, including prophet Warren Jeffs, and that some have been convicted of child sex abuse? No.

Now in her 40s, Witness #2 was born into a polygamous family. Although her father had five wives, she grew up in a home with three "mothers" and "approximately 30 children."

She said she chose to marry at 16. She wanted to go to college. But her father and the prophet would only allow that if she married.

The man the prophet chose for her was 13 years older, and had married her sister six years earlier, when she was only 16.

The witness chose marriage, even though she said sharing a husband hasn't always been easy.

People in Bountiful do have options, she insisted.

The problem seems to be that they're not always good ones.

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