Child marriage sharply curtailed by New York Legislature

Legislation had divided advocates

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

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 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.”

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 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.”

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