Advocates urge end to child marriages of girls as young as 14 in N.Y., N.J.
By Cristina DC Pastor
Unknown to many in New York and New Jersey, there are child brides walking amongst us, young American girls marrying at age 12 or 14. There is a law that allows it, and advocates are now urging legislators to repeal that law.
Human Rights Watch explained that while the marital age in all 50 states is 18 years old, there is a little-known feature in the law that codifies marriage of girls as young as 14 usually to much older men.
“Under current law, the minimum age of marriage in New York is 18, but the law permits exceptions to that minimum age, allowing children age 16 and 17 to marry with parental approval, and 14- and 15-year-olds to marry if they have permission from a judge in addition to their parents.”
In the period from 2001 to 2010, Human Rights Watch says 3,850 children under the age of 18 married in New York State.
While parental consent and judicial consent need to be present for the law to take effect, that such a law exists remains “frankly shocking,” said Heather Barr, senior researcher on women’s rights at Human Rights Watch.
She said “Such a law is out of step with the rest of the world. Even in countries with high rates of child marriage, there is usually recognition that marriage under age 18 is harmful.
Filipino American women interviewed by The FilAm expressed shock as well, many of them unaware that such a law exists in America. “I thought child brides are only in Africa,” said one mother of two young girls. Comments ranging from “Ew” to “End that law, already” were expressed.
Count Family Law attorney in New Jersey Jhanice Domingo among those urging the repeal of the law. A Partner with Einhorn Harris’ Family Law Department, she said, “A marriage or civil union is a serious legal contract that should be entered into by consenting adults not children.”
“Permitting child marriages, albeit by exception when there is parental or judicial approval, does not afford children, especially young girls, adequate protection,” she said in an email interview. It could mean protection “against being coerced to marry against one’s will; being denied educational and/or job opportunities and the ability to be financially self-sufficient; and potential physical, emotional or psychological abuse and domestic violence.”
Raising awareness that such a law remains in force is important, and that girls in such marriages need assistance to rebuild their lives. Advocates from a non-profit organization called Unchained At Last are calling attention to the issue and helping girls leave “forced marriages.”
“Unchained helps any woman or girl in the U.S., from any community, culture or religion, who is or has been pressured, bribed, tricked, threatened, beaten or otherwise forced into marriage — whether she has been married for several decades and has many children or she is facing an imminent or eventual arranged/forced marriage,” it says in the organization’s website.
Both Unchained and Human Rights Watch maintain that marriage before the age of 18 is a serious violation of human rights.
“Children need to be protected from marrying for the same reason there are other age restrictions — drinking alcohol, joining the military, possessing a handgun,” said Barr of Human Rights Watch. “There is a growing consensus, globally, that 18 years old should be the minimum age of marriage.”
It is not surprising, said Domingo, that many organizations that seek to protect children’s well-being are speaking out and lobbying for laws that bar a person under the age 18 from marrying or entering into a civil union.
“New York, New Jersey and many other states throughout the country have now proposed bills to end child marriages, and it is up to our legislators now to address this considerable challenge,” she said.