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Child Marriage Is Sharply Curtailed by New York Legislature

Assemblywoman Amy Paulin, the sponsor of the bill raising the marriage age, said it would “dramatically change the lives of girls in New York” for the better. CreditNathaniel Brooks for The New York Times

In the name of Allah

Assemblywoman Amy Paulin, the sponsor of the bill raising the marriage age, said it would “dramatically change the lives of girls in New York” for the better. CreditNathaniel Brooks for The New York Times

ALBANY — For young teenagers, New York State is calling the wedding off.

The little-known law that for decades has allowed minors as young as 14 to wed will now be changed, abolishing marriage for 14- to 16-year-olds and allowing 17-year-olds to wed only with both judicial and parental consent.

On Thursday, the Democratic-controlled State Assembly voted unanimously to adopt the changes, after a vote Tuesday by the Republican-led Senate to raise the age to marry. Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, a Democrat who has called ending child marriage a priority, is expected to sign the measure into law.

Assemblywoman Amy Paulin, the bill’s sponsor in that house, said the new law would “dramatically change the lives of girls in New York” for the better. She had introduced similar legislation last year, but it had stalled because of concerns from some lawmakers who represent religious communities.

“The current New York law is, at best, antiquated,” she said in an interview before the vote. “It reflects a time when everyone married younger. Times have changed. Child marriage is coerced marriage. It condemns young women to a life they did not choose.”

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Experts on family law and advocates for women say that early marriage imposes social, educational and financial burdens on teenage girls. Often, the marriages are arranged for girls by families whose religious and cultural customs support the practice. Girls are often wed to older men — even to relatives, like cousins, from abroad who are in search of green cards that allow them to live permanently in the United States.

Across the country, laws allowing early nuptials are common. A majority of states allow 16- and 17-year-olds to marry, and more than two dozen other states have no statutory minimum age at all. Since 1929, New York has permitted 14- and 15-year-olds to marry with judicial and parental approval, and 16- and 17-year-olds to marry with only parental consent.

Between 2000 and 2010, nearly 3,900 minors were married in New York. Only a handful of boys and girls typically marry as young as 14 or 15, however. In 2010, for instance, only two 14-year-old boys and one 15-year-old girl were married statewide. But the numbers rise quickly for slightly older teenagers. That same year, 50 girls and six boys who were 16 said marriage vows in New York.

Early marriage carries other costs, advocates say. A girl can marry at 14, but cannot legally divorce until 18. The new law will mandate that a 17-year-old who marries will also be able to divorce. And shelters for victims of domestic violence generally do not accept anyone under 18.

Last month, Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey, a Republican, conditionally vetoed a bill that would have banned marriage for those under 18. He said the legislation, which passed both houses of the Legislature by strong margins, did not “comport with the sensibilities” or “religious customs” of some state residents. In New Jersey, 16- and 17-year-olds may marry with parental permission, while younger teenagers can obtain marriage licenses with a judge’s order.

Under the New York law, judges will be given guidelines to help them decide whether a prospective bride or groom is entering a marriage freely at age 17.

The proposed legislation in New York divided advocates this spring. Some argued that the bill did not go far enough, asserting that it should have prohibited marriage for all minors, without exception. But on Thursday, other advocates praised the action in Albany, saying lawmakers and Governor Cuomo were ending what they termed a form of child abuse.

“New York is poised to lead the nation in recognizing child marriage as a human rights violation,” said Sonia Ossorio, president of the National Organization for Women of New York. “Governor Cuomo has been very clear that child marriage is a scourge on our New York values. It’s not a surprise that he will be signing into law the strongest protections against child marriage in the country.”

A staged wedding between a child bride and older man was part of a protest in New York City last year.

A bill that would ban marriage entirely for anyone under 18 in New Jersey overwhelmingly passed the legislature earlier this year.

If it passed, New Jersey would have become the first US state to outlaw marriage for minors, in a country where the practice is still shockingly common. Throughout the US, 170,000 children were wed between 2000 and 2010, mostly underage girls married to older men.

But when the groundbreaking bill reached Governor Chris Christie’s desk, he vetoed it.

Christie’s office argued that the current bill is too absolute and should be amended to make exceptions.

“An exclusion without exceptions would violate the cultures and traditions of some communities in New Jersey based on religious traditions,” the Republican governor wrote in a statement.

Instead, the governor said the law can be tightened in two ways that would still deter a significant amount of child marriage.

Currently, children under 16 can get married in the state with parental approval and judge consent. Christie suggests banning marriage for anyone under 16.

For minors who are 16 and 17, the current law allows marriage with parental approval. Christie suggests making judge consent another barrier.

Because Christie enacted a conditional veto, the legislature will be able to make changes and send a new version to the governor relatively quickly.

But advocates don’t want to budge. They argue that child marriage stipulation should never be made, that the practice is harmful no matter how you look at it, depriving minors, especially young girls, of their future.

“Marriage is a legal contract and it should be reserved for adults,” state Sen. Nellie Pou (D-Passaic), a sponsor, said in March. “It is startling for people to learn that there are many underage marriages happening here in New Jersey. As a state, we have a responsibility to protect our residents, and moral obligation to protect children and this bill takes the necessary steps to do that.”

Further, advocates, including the nonprofit Unchained At Last, say that parental approval and judicial consent barriers are misleading because oftentimes parents are the ones orchestrating the marriages and find sympathetic judges to approve the arrangement.

Plus, advocates argue that minors are not mature enough to make such a life-defining choice and do not appreciate all the burdens of marriage and therefore should be protected from the institution.

Child marriage is legal with parental permission or court approval in almost every state in the US, and 27 states do not enforce a minimum age for marriage.

Globally, nearly 90% of countries bar marriage for people under 18, but more than half make exceptions, according to the World Policy Center. For women alive today, these exceptions are troublingly routine. More than 700 million women alive today were married before 18, including ۲۵۰ million who were locked into an arrangement before they turned 15, according to the United Nations Children’s Fund.

“We cannot solve the child marriage problem globally if we don’t first solve it here in the United States,” Fraidy Reiss, the founder and executive director of the organization Unchained at Last, told CBS News.

A city clerk’s office in New York. CreditSpencer Platt/Getty Images

IN the United States today, thousands of children under 18 have recently taken marital vows — mostly girls married to adult men, often with approval from local judges.

How is this possible? The minimum marriage age in most states is 18, but every state allows exceptions under which children under age 18 can wed.

The first common exception is for children marrying with “parental consent.” Most states allow children age 16 or 17 to marry if their parents sign the marriage license application.

Of course, one person’s “parental consent” can be another’s “parental coercion,” but state laws typically do not call for anyone to investigate whether a child is marrying willingly. Even in the case of a girl’s sobbing openly while her parents sign the application and force her into marriage, the clerk usually has no authority to intervene. In fact, in most states there are no laws that specifically forbid forced marriage.

The second common marriage-age exception is for children marrying with judicial approval. This exception lowers the marriage age below 16 in many states, and many states do not specify a minimum age. Judges in those states can allow the marriage even of an elementary school student.

But judges would never do that, right?

Unchained at Last, a nonprofit I founded to help women escape from arranged, forced marriages, recently retrieved health department data on the ages of people married in New Jersey, where 16- and 17-year-olds may wed with parental consent, and children under 15 may marry with judicial approval.

Unfortunately, the available records do not include any identifying details about marriages beyond the ages of the participants. Nevertheless, the data show that 3,481 children were married in New Jersey between 1995 and 2012. Most were age 16 or 17 and married with parental consent, but 163 were between ages 13 and 15, meaning a judge approved their marriages.

Shockingly, 91 percent of the children were married to adults, often at ages or with age differences that could have triggered statutory-rape charges, not a marriage license.

Based on my own experience working with forced-marriage victims across the United States, I am sure many of these children had to marry against their will. Forced marriage is a widespread but often ignored problem in the United States. A survey by the Tahirih Justice Center, an NGO that provides services to immigrant women and girls, identified as many as 3,000 known or suspected forced-marriage cases just between 2009 and 2011, many involving girls under age 18. Tactics used against the victims included threats of ostracism, beatings or death.

Forced and child marriages happen almost everywhere, yet only 10 states or jurisdictions have specific laws that can be used to prevent or punish forced marriage. The Tahirih survey focused on immigrants, and it identified child marriages or forced marriages, or both, in immigrant communities from 56 countries of origin in Africa, Asia, Europe and the Americas, but it also identified such marriage in so-called American families.

Parents give many reasons for forcing their children into marriage, including controlling the children’s sexuality and behavior and protecting “family honor.” Often families use forced marriage to enhance their status or gain economic security.

The New Jersey data show that 90 percent of the children married were girls, which is consistent with global trends. Across the world, child marriage and forced marriage disproportionately affect girls and women.

Unchained at Last also requested health department data on the ages of people recently married in New York State, where 16- and 17-year-olds may wed with “parental consent” and 14- and 15-year-olds may wed with judicial approval. The data show that 3,853 children were married between 2000 and 2010.

Data after 2010 excludes New York City, where statistics are kept separately. Still, the state data show that in 2011 alone, a 14-year-old married a 26-year-old, a 15-year-old was wed to a 28-year-old, another 15-year-old was wed to a 25-year-old and a 15-year-old married someone age “۳۵ to 39.” All of those marriages were approved by New York judges.

Globally, 88 percent of countries set 18 as the minimum marriage age, but over half allow minor girls to marry with “parental consent,” according to the World Policy Center. More than 700 million women alive today were married before 18, including some 250 million who wed before 15, according to the United Nations Children’s Fund. Most live in South Asia or sub-Saharan Africa, but as these new numbers show, too many live right here in the United States.

Marriage is a legal contract and it should be reserved for adults. The dangers of child marriage are, after all, very clear: A recent report found that child marriage “undermines girls’ health, education and economic opportunities, and increases their risk of experiencing violence.”

The solution is relatively simple. State legislators should eliminate the archaic legal exceptions that allow children to wed. This is the only way to end child and forced marriage in the United States.

Correction: April 9, 2016
An Op-Ed essay on Oct. 14, about child marriage in the United States, included incorrect information about such marriages based on data provided by the New Jersey Center for Health Statistics. The article described incorrectly a marriage in New Jersey in 2006 and another one in 1996. In the 2006 marriage the groom was 18, not 10, while in the 1996 marriage the bride was 22, not 12. The article also included incorrect figures for the total number of children married in New Jersey from 1995 to 2012. There were 3,481 such children, not 3,499. Of those children, 163 were between the ages of 13 and 15, not 178 between 10 and 15. The errors came to light recently when the writer questioned the center’s data.

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