I am proud to announce that my bill (A.5524-B/S.4407-B) raising the minimum age to marry to age 17 was signed into law by Governor Andrew Cuomo in a Tuesday-afternoon ceremony in the Red Room of the New York State Capitol. The law prohibits the marriage of minors under the age of 17 and strengthens the process to obtain court approval for marriage of minors at least 17 but under 18 years of age.
I am thrilled that the Governor has taken this historic step and signed the bill into law. His unwavering support went a long way toward getting this done. Children who are 14 and 15 years old should be worrying about their schoolwork and spending time with their friends, not whether they have to get married. Girls marrying much older men are being abused physically, mentally and emotionally. Marriage at such a young age destroys the lives of young girls. I am relieved we have changed this outdated law so that we can end this intolerable practice.
Senator Andrew Lanza, who sponsored the bill in the Senate, and I were on hand for the signing. Sonia Ossorio, president of the National Organization for Women of New York and a staunch advocate for the bill, was in attendance as was Safia Mahjebin, who had become the poster child for ending child marriage in New York. Mahjebin has courageously spoken out about her own experience as a young woman from a traditional community in which girls are pressured and threatened to comply with the practice and are often subjected to abuse if they resist their parents’ demands. Keerthana Nimmala and Jenise Ogle from Sanctuary for Families, advocate for victims of domestic violence, sex trafficking, and related forms of gender violence, and a tireless proponent of the legislation, also attended.
“With the signing today of the law banning child marriage, New York State has taken an important step forward to end a human rights violation,” said Hon. Judy Harris Kluger, Executive Director of Sanctuary for Families. “Sanctuary for Families has seen firsthand that young girls who are forced to marry are more likely to suffer domestic violence and are much less likely to complete their education. We thank Governor Cuomo, Assemblywoman Paulin and Senator Lanza for their leadership and for standing with us against gender inequality and child exploitation. Marriage is now a milestone of adulthood, not childhood.”
The minimum age to marry in New York State under previous law was fourteen. A 14-or 15-year old could marry with parental consent and court approval while a 16- or 17-year old could marry with parental consent. Prior law enabled children to be forced into marriage by their parents who brought their children before the court or the court clerk to provide their “consent”. In reality, the consent was a sham as the parents had forced their child to marry, threatening the child with ostracism, beatings or death if the child refused.
According to Fraidy Reiss, executive director and founder of Unchained At Last, nearly 4,000 minors were married in New York between 2000 and 2010 and more than 84 percent of those children were minor girls married to adult men. Unchained At Last is the only nonprofit in the U.S. dedicated to helping women and girls leave or avoid arranged/forced marriages.
“This is an important first step toward ending the human rights abuse of child marriage in New York State,” Reiss said. “I applaud Assemblywoman Paulin for her leadership.”
The court approval process to authorize the marriage of 14- and 15-year olds under prior law did not provide adequate protections against abuse or fraud by the parents or guardians to force a child to marry. The newly signed law strengthens the court process which will now apply to marriages of persons who are between 17- and 18-years old. The new law requires, among other things, the appointment of an attorney for the child who has received training in domestic violence that includes a component on forced marriage, as well as requires the court to hold an in camera interview, separately with each minor party, and make specific written findings. The law also provides that if the court approves the marriage, each minor party will have all the rights of an adult, including the right to enter into a contract, except for specific constitutional and statutory age requirements.
“New York has recognized child marriage as a human rights violation,” Ossorio said. “We urge the rest of the country to follow suit.”