New York bans child marriage, turns planned protest into celebration

Governor Andrew Cuomo holds a press briefing on COVID-19 in Albany, New York, on February 10, 2021.
Governor Andrew Cuomo holds a press briefing on COVID-19 in Albany, New York, on February 10, 2021. | Darren McGee/Office of Governor Andrew M. Cuomo

A planned protest in New York City against child marriage will now be a celebration next month after Gov. Andrew Cuomo signed legislation Thursday raising the age of consent to be married in New York State to 18.

"This administration fought hard to successfully end child marriage in New York and I'm proud to sign this legislation to strengthen our laws and further protect vulnerable children from exploitation," Cuomo said in a statement. "Children should be allowed to live their childhood and I thank the many legislators and advocates who worked diligently to advance this measure and further prevent forced marriages in this state."

Cuomo signed legislation in 2017 that raised the age to marry from 14 to 18. But the 2017 bill allowed 17 year olds to get married with parental and judicial consent. 

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The new legislation is named Nalia’s Law after a survivor forced into child marriage and is expected to take effect within the next month.

The law makes New York only the sixth U.S. state to end all marriage before 18 with no exceptions, according to Unchained at Last, the only nonprofit in the U.S. dedicated to helping women and girls leave or avoid arranged, forced or child marriages.

Fraidy Reiss, Unchained at Last’s executive director, who survived a forced marriage in Brooklyn, had pledged Tuesday to "Chain-In" outside Cuomo’s Manhattan office every Wednesday starting Aug. 4 — in bridal gown and chains — until he signed the bill. Cuomo took action on the legislation, however. So now, instead of a protest, the group is planning to celebrate.

“We have been pushing to end child marriage in New York since 2015. Along with our allies in the New York Coalition to End Child Marriage, we met with or called every state legislator multiple times," a statement from the organization reads. 

"We submitted memos of support. We Chained-In in Manhattan and Albany to demand an end to child marriage."

Unchained at Last called it "a good day for girls in New York." 

"Now let’s do the same for girls in another 44 states. #18NoExceptions," the statement added. 

In a study published in April, the organization found that nearly 300,000 minors under age 18 were legally married in the U.S. between 2000 and 2018. Some of these minors were as young as 10. But a majority were 16 or 17. Most of the minor girls were married to adult men who were an average of four years older.

In a statement Thursday, State Sen. Julia Salazar, who pushed for the legislation, praised the work of Unchained At Last to make the law a reality.

"Regardless of maturity level, minors lack sufficient legal rights and autonomy that they need to protect them if they enter a marriage contract before becoming adults," Salazar said. "The vast majority of minors who enter a marriage are teenage girls, and getting married before adulthood often has devastating consequences for them. I thank Governor Cuomo for signing this bill to finally prohibit child marriage without exceptions in New York, and commend the continued work of Unchained At Last in advocating to prohibit child marriage nationwide."

Democratic Assemblyman Phil Ramos also praised the new legislation as protection for vulnerable young girls.

"The cruel and callous practice of child marriage has traumatized too many children to count," he said. "Nalia's Law, which will raise the age of consent for marriage to 18 and prohibit marriage if either person is underage, is named after one brave survivor of forced child marriage who I was lucky enough to meet. With the passage of this crucial legislation, minors in New York will be further protected from this predatory practice, and we can prevent stories like Nalia's from repeating themselves."

The signing of the New York bill comes over a month after Gov. Daniel McKee of Rhode Island signed a bill to ban marriage before the age of 18. Other states that have enacted similar laws include Delaware, Minnesota, New Jersey and Pennsylvania. 

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