New York bans child marriage, a ‘dirty secret’ in the United States

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Barriers to education, Child marriage, Girls' education, Right to education

Tens of thousands of American girls are married before they're 18 - and studies show they're 50% more likely to drop out of high school and more likely to live in poverty in adulthood.

Most people are aware that child marriage is a global problem. About 15 million girls under the age of 18 are married each year and for many it spells the end of their education, as well as putting them at risk of violence and health complications.

There’s often an assumption that this is just an issue in the developing world. But it’s not – it happens in every part of the world.

That fact hit home this week when the state of New York did its bit to tackle the problem of child marriage in the United States when it raised the legal minimum age to 18 – or 17 with parental and court approval.

Previously, 16 and 17-year-olds could wed with parental consent and those aged 14 and 15 with the approval of their parents and a judge. 

New York Governor Andrew Cuomo said: “This is a major step forward in our efforts to protect children and prevent forced marriages.”

In New York state, more than 3800 children under 18 were married between 2000 and 2010. In 38 of the 50 American states where data was available about 170,000 children were married in that time, according to the anti-child marriage group Unchained at Last.

“Child marriage is a dirty secret in the US – and other states should follow New York’s example by enacting laws to help end this harmful practice,” said Heather Barr, senior women’s rights researcher at Human Rights Watch. 

Child Marriage Us 2

Under a previous, nearly 80-year-old state law, children as young as 14 were allowed to marry (Andrew Itaga )

“US state laws permitting child marriage are out of step with the rest of the world since even countries with high rates of child marriage are recognising the harm it causes and taking steps to prevent these marriages.”

Studies show child marriage is linked to poverty and school dropout rates in the US, with underage girls who marry 50% more likely to drop out of high school, according to research cited by the governor’s office. 

Child brides are 31% more likely to live in poverty when they are older and three times more likely to be victims of domestic abuse than women who get married later, it said.

New York is the latest state to outlaw child marriage. Texas last week passed a law limiting child marriage and Virginia did so last year. Similar legislation is under consideration in a handful of other states.

Judy Harris Kluger, executive director of Sanctuary for Families, said New York state had taken an important step forward to “end a human rights violation.”

She added: “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.”

But New Jersey Governor Chris Christie last month refused to prohibit child marriage, saying a ban would “violate the cultures and traditions of some communities in New Jersey based on religious traditions”.

Last month, a case in Florida made global headlines after a woman claimed she was forced to marry her rapist at the age of 11. Sherry Johnson said she became pregnant at 10 to a man from her church and dropped out of school for good.

Trinidad and Tobago has just raised the marriage age to 18. United Nations statistics showed that 8% of under-18s there were married between 20012 and 2012.

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