POLITICS

New York Bans Child Marriage, A Practice That's Still Alarmingly Common

"Nalia’s Law” was named after a survivor who was forced into marriage at the age of 13.

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) on Thursday signed legislation raising the age of consent to be married in the state to 18, effectively banning child marriage.

“Nalia’s Law” was named after a survivor who was forced into marriage at the age of 13. The measure, which goes into effect Aug. 21, builds on a 2017 law that raised the minimum age of consent from 14 to 17.

The law makes New York just the sixth such state to fully ban marriage before the age of 18 regardless of parental or judicial consent, according to Unchained at Last, a nonprofit advocacy group that opposes child marriage and lobbied in support of Nalia’s Law.

Delaware, Minnesota, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Rhode Island have similarly strict standards. The remaining 44 states, however, share a patchwork of laws permitting marriage at younger ages (nine have no minimum age), depending on factors like parental and judicial approval, pregnancy status and ― in one case ― gender.

With parental consent, Mississippi will marry girls at the age of 15 while boys have to be at least 17. Both minimums can be waived by a judge, however, effectively lowering the minimum age to zero.

“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,” state Sen. Julia Salazar (D), one of the bill’s sponsors, said in a statement. “The vast majority of minors who enter a marriage are teenage girls, and getting married before adulthood often has devastating consequences for them.”

Since minors have limited legal rights, though they can get married, they typically can’t file for divorce and thus have difficulty escaping an unwanted marriage. Laws permitting marriage under the age of 18 also effectively undermine statutory rape laws.

An April 2021 study by Unchained at Last found nearly 300,000 minors were legally married in the U.S. between 2000 and 2018, most of them girls age 16 or 17 (though a few were as young as 10), wed to adult men an average of four years older. 

In around 60,000 of those marriages, the spousal age difference should have constituted a sex crime under the relevant state’s law. Of the 60,000, in roughly 52,800 cases, the marriage license allowed within marriage what would have otherwise been considered statutory rape. In the remaining 7,200, the ages of those involved were such that, though the marriage was legal, sex within it remained a crime.

“The cruel and callous practice of child marriage has traumatized too many children to count,” New York Assembly Member Phil Ramos (D), another co-sponsor, said in a statement. “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.”