Each day around the world thousands of girls become child brides, often marrying men who are significantly older. While most people generally associate child marriage with developing countries around the world, permissive laws on the minimum age of marriage mean that far more children are at risk in the US than many might assume.
The effects of being forced into a marriage as a child are devastating. A girl may have to drop out of school, is more likely to get pregnant before the age of 18, increasing the risk of maternal and child mortality, is more likely to experience domestic violence, and is more likely to live in poverty because opportunities to create a livelihood are limited. Knowing what we know, it’s hard to believe marriage below the age of 18 is still legal in every single US state.
Governor Cuomo of New York recently announced that he will be advancing legislation to end the practice of child marriage in the state by changing the legal age to marry to 18 years old.
The proposed legislation will:
Additionally, the new legislation includes guidance for judges issuing consent for New Yorkers between the ages of 17- and 18-years-old to get married.
In order for a judge to provide written consent, they must ensure that neither party has a history of domestic violence, orders of protection issued against them, or is a registered sex offender. The judge must conduct an in-person interview with the minor to ensure the following:
Under current NY law, children as young as 14-years-old may get married with parental permission and written consent provided by a judge. The law, dating back to 1929, does not provide guidance to judges on determining whether or not to grant consent to marry. As a direct result, more than 3,800 minors were married in New York between 2000 and 2010, according to Unchained at Last.
Child marriage in the state of New York also poses some unique difficulties. A girl can be married at age 14 but cannot be legally divorced until age 18. In addition, most shelters for victims of domestic violence do not accept anyone under the age of 18, leaving girls in this situation to entirely fend for themselves.
This proposed legislation is an improvement and a huge step forward from the current law that allows children as young as 14 to be married. However, according to an article by The New York Times, lobbying by various religious organizations led to an exception below the age of 18 which allows 17-year-olds to be permitted to legally marry with judicial and parental consent.
If this exception is allowed to stand, in instances where a child is being forced into the marriage, the burden will fall on them to convey to the judge that they are being coerced into marriage. The onus for this should not be placed on the minor. In most cases of child marriage the pressure to marry is being placed on the child by parents. A minor questioned by a judge may fear retaliation by their family and choose not to disclose any force or coercion they face. Or, if they take the opportunity to stand up for their rights and inform the judge about their predicament, they may find themselves the victims of honor violence or be taken abroad and left there until the marriage occurs.
Furthermore, the version of the bill which recently passed the New York State Senate allows for the parents to be present during the judge’s interview with the minor who is to be married. In this scenario, it is even more unlikely that a 17-year-old who is being pressured into an unwanted marriage will be willing to admit to the judge, in their parents presence, that they do not wish to marry.
Establishing a hard minimum of 18-years-old for marriage in the state of New York would eliminate the burden on a minor to prove that they are being forced to marry. It would also help provide for a healthier, better educated population of women and girls.
We applaud Governor Cuomo for the major concrete steps he has taken to eliminate child marriage in New York. We encourage him to continue this fight and make this bill even stronger by eliminating any exceptions below the age of 18 for marriage in the state of New York.
All of The AHA Foundation’s core issues – honor violence, forced and child marriage, and female genital mutilation – are fueled by social and cultural practices. It may seem that policy change has no effect on social change. However, policy change is often the first step toward creating lasting social and cultural change by providing an essential legal safety net for those who may be at risk, and alerting communities to the rights afforded to individuals in this country. The AHA Foundation is fully committed to creating change and ending these harmful practices within the US.
New York isn’t the only state with pending legislation on child marriage. There are currently bills progressing in New Jersey, Connecticut, Maryland, and Massachusetts. There are many things you can do to support the effort to end child marriage in the US.
Contact your State Legislators
To make your voice heard, and ensure your legislators know you support ending child marriage you can send an email here through Unchained at Last’s website.
Tell your Friends
Spread the word to your friends of this proposed legislation and the efforts currently underway across the country. Share this article on social media, and raise awareness within your own community.
Together, we can help advance legislation that would eliminate child marriage in the US.