Every year, loopholes in our state’s marital statutes enabled hundreds of children to be married. Over the past two decades, nearly 5,000 minors were issued marriage licenses in the state.
That’s what prompted Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo to sign into law bill S3086 on July 22 and raise our state’s minimum marital age to 18. This is a law that my nonprofit, Students Against Child Marriage, along with survivors and our allied organizations, had diligently advocated for in the State Senate and Assembly. When it goes into effect Aug. 21, New York will become the sixth state in the nation to end child marriage.
These aren’t happily-ever-after high school love stories, but typically ones about younger girls wed to older men in abusive, forced marriages. The state Department of Health’s statistics confirm this terrifying fact: 84% of child marriages in the state involved a girl marrying an older man.
How has such a human rights abuse persisted in New York? The problem was rooted in our outdated laws. Though our state previously set an official minimum age for marriage at 18, 17-year-olds were able to marry with the consent of both parents and a judge.
The adults are often the perpetrators. Parental consent quickly becomes parental coercion as girls are forced into marriage for reasons related to pregnancy or socioeconomic status. Whether attempting to cover up rape or hide an unwed teenage pregnancy, child marriage is often sought as parents distort the best interest of their child.
Although there are definitely instances of child marriages going on to last lifetimes, paving the way for cohesive, healthy families, these are unfortunately the exception and not the rule: Divorce rates for those married as minors are north of 70%.
What’s more, while New York had automatically granted married minors the important legal rights of adulthood — the ability to enter into a contract — this typically ended the financial obligation parents have to their children. Survivors of child marriage in New York thus became even more reliant on their spouses. Brides who hoped to escape often found themselves without any resources upon exiting their marriages.
From increased rates of domestic violence and economic hardship to lower educational attainment and lifelong health complications, the numerous risks associated with entering into these marriages as a minor are just too great.
New York’s new law will remove all mechanisms by which minors can be married. Any government official who grants a marriage license will receive a misdemeanor and fine. It’s a simple and lifesaving legislative solution, but unfortunately, one that 44 other states have not yet enacted.
It’s time for America to end child marriage.
This guest essay reflects the views of Max T. Robins, founder and executive director of Students Against Child Marriage.