An obscure New York State law that allows teenagers as young as fourteen to marry is on the verge of being overturned following votes this week in the State Assembly and Senate. Since 1929, judges have had the authority to approve a marriage petition for a 14 or 15 year old, assuming parental consent. Only parental consent has been required for 16 and 17 year olds to wed.
Now, marriage will be illegal for anyone under the age of 17. For 17-year-olds, judges will use guidelines to aid them in determining if a minor is entering marriage of his or her own volition.
More than 3,850 minors were married in New York State between 2000 and 2010 according to Sanctuary for Families, a nonprofit that works with victims of domestic abuse and sex trafficking and has long advocated for the elimination of these marriages. According to the group, the law places minors in a "Catch-22 dilemma," since a child married at 14 does not have the legal right to divorce until age 18. If a minor is coerced into marriage, he or she has little recourse, they argue.
"Child marriage is a human rights violation that fosters gender inequality and exploitation," said Sanctuary director Judy Harris Kluger in a statement this week, adding that these minors, primarily young women, are more likely to experience domestic violence.
New York has not been alone in making legal exceptions for minors to marry. The NY Times reports that a majority of states allow 16 and 17-year-olds to marry, and a few dozen have no minimums at all.
Similar legislation to curtail child marriage stalled in Albany last year, though Governor Andrew Cuomo has indicated his intention to sign this year's adjustments into law. Opposition has come from religious communities where younger marriages are common.
"Not once in my 35 years in office — in a community where people are encouraged to get married at a young age — did someone say this is an issue, this was a problem, this was wrong," Borough Park Assemblyman Dov Hikind, who represents a primarily Hasidic constituent base, told the NY Times earlier this year.
This year's child marriage bill is sponsored by Democratic Assemblywoman Amy Paulin, who represents Westchester County, and Staten Island Republican Senator Andrew Lanza.
"This practice is a violation of human rights that has consistently had a disproportionately discriminatory effect on young girls," Paulin told the Post.