February 13, 2017
To: Members of the New York State Assembly and Senate
Re: Request that you support State Assembly Bill A.5524 and Senate Bill S.4407 to help end child marriage in New York
We urge you to support bill A.5524, and its Senate equivalent. This bill proposes to reduce child marriage in New York by prohibiting marriage before the age of 17.
New York law currently permits the marriage of children as young as 14 years old. In the period from 2001 to 2010, 3,850 children under the age of 18 married in New York State.
Studies have found that child marriage before the age of 18 is associated with harmful impacts on women and girls:
- Education: Girls or young women in the US who marry before the age of 19 are 50 percent more likely to drop out of high school than their unmarried counterparts, and four times less likely to compete college.[i]
- Poverty: Women who marry as early teens (before 16) in the US are around 31 percent more likely to end up in poverty later in life.[ii]
- Health: Researchers have found significant associations between child marriage and mental and physical health disorders. One study found that marrying as a teenager was associated with a 23 percent higher rate of disease onset among women.[iii]
- Domestic violence: Research from other countries shows a correlation between child marriage and domestic violence.[iv]
New York law does not provide sufficient protection to ensure that a child marriage is voluntary. Many child marriages are arranged—and often forced—by parents or other family members of the child. A requirement for parental consent provides no protection in situations where parents are pressuring or forcing a girl to marry.
New York’s law is out of step with the rest of the world.
There is a growing consensus that the minimum age of marriage should be 18, and many countries are reforming their law to reflect this, and to reflect the fact that child marriage violates international law. To cite just a few examples, the marriage of a 14-year-old child is illegal in Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Indonesia, Iraq, Malawi, Nepal, Pakistan, South Sudan, Tanzania, and Zimbabwe.
Human Rights Watch has done extensive research on child marriage globally, interviewing experts, government officials, community leaders, religious leaders, activists and, most importantly, many hundreds of married children in countries including Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Malawi, South Sudan, Tanzania, Yemen, and Zimbabwe. We have also advocated for an end to child marriage in other countries, including Indonesia, Iran, Iraq, Nigeria, Saudi Arabia, and Pakistan. I have attached a list of selected links to this work.
You might wonder how the experience of children in these countries is relevant in New York State, but a growing body of research from around the world, including by Human Rights Watch, demonstrates that child marriage is associated with severe harm to married children, wherever they live, and that child marriage is one of the major challenges facing girls’ rights today.[v]
The overwhelming majority of married children are girls, most of whom marry spouses who are older than them—sometimes much older. Girls sometimes marry as children because they are pregnant, often under pressure from their families. Other married girls become pregnant soon after marriage. Early pregnancy involves serious health risks for pregnant girls and their babies. Pregnant girls, married or not, need to be able to make their own informed choice about whether to continue their pregnancy, and have support and access to care, including contraception and abortion, to allow them to exercise this choice. No child should be pressured or compelled to marry due to pregnancy.
Married girls also often face domestic violence and sexual violence, including rape, within their homes. Married girls often find it more difficult than married women to escape an abusive or unhappy marriage, and to access services such as shelter and legal assistance.
The current law in New York requires parental consent for marriage under 18, and supplements this with the requirement that a court authorize marriage of a 14 or 15-year-old. This does not provide sufficient protection to ensure that a marriage is voluntary. Many child marriages are arranged—and often forced—by parents or family members of the child. A requirement for parental consent provides no protection in situations where parents are forcing a girl to marry. Under New York’s current law, judicial review is only required in cases where the child marrying is under the age of 16—an age at which marriage should not be permitted under any circumstance.
Children need to be protected from marrying for the same reason there are age limits for other actions—drinking alcohol, joining the military, possessing a handgun. Laws and policies on the minimum age for consent to marriage need to balance the need to protect children with the need to provide autonomy for young people.
Child marriage is a complex issue to address, and its eradication requiring strong leadership from government and partnerships with religious leaders, nongovernmental organizations, and communities to bring about social change. But first and foremost, it requires government and people in positions of leadership and influence to recognize and accept that child marriage is a problem, one that can be addressed through concerted action.
As a first step, New York should change its law. It is frankly shocking that New York permits the marriage of 14 year olds. Such a law is out of step with the rest of the world. Even in countries with high rates of child marriage, there is usually recognition that marriage before the age of 18 is harmful, and an effort to prevent these marriages, beginning with reforming the law. Of the countries where Human Rights Watch has worked to end child marriage, only Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Yemen have laws that would permit the marriage of a 14-year-old.
State Assembly Bill A.5524 would prohibit marriage in New York before the age of 17, and provide additional protections for children who marry. We believe that this is an important measure to help close a damaging loophole in New York’s current law which threatens the safety and well-being of New York’s children, especially girls. We urge you to support reform of the law.
Human Rights Watch is an independent nongovernmental organization that monitors and reports on human rights issues in more than 90 countries around the world. We report on a range of human rights issues, including those related to the rights of women and children.
Please feel free to contact me with any questions.
Acting Director of Women’s Rights
Human Rights Watch
Selected links to Human Rights Watch work on child marriage
[i] Gordon B. Dahl, Early Teen Marriage and Future Poverty, 47 DEMOGRAPHY 691 (2010); and Daniel Klepinger et al., How Does Adolescent Fertility Affect the Human Capital and Wages of Young Women, 34 J. HUM. RESOURCES 421, 443 (1999). See also, Vivian E. Hamilton, “The Age of Marital Capacity: Reconsidering Civil Recognition of Adolescent Marriage,” Boston University Law Review, Vol. 92, 2012, p. 1846, http://scholarship.law.wm.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=2467&context=facpubs (accessed December 13, 2016).
[ii] Gordon B. Dahl, Early Teen Marriage and Future Poverty, 47 DEMOGRAPHY 691 (2010), 705-06, econweb.ucsd.edu/~gdahl/papers/early-teen-marriage.pdf (accessed December 14, 2016). See also, Vivian E. Hamilton, “The Age of Marital Capacity: Reconsidering Civil Recognition of Adolescent Marriage,” Boston University Law Review, Vol. 92, 2012, p. 1847, http://scholarship.law.wm.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=2467&context=facpubs.
[iii] Matthew E. Dupre, Audrey N. Beck, and Sarah O. Meadows, “Marital Trajectories and Mortality Among US Adults,” American Journal of Epidemiology, Sep 1, 2009; 170(5): 546–555, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2732990/ (accessed December 14, 2016).
[iv] Sunita Kishor & Kiersten Johnson, “Profiling Domestic Violence: A Multi-Country Study,” Measure DHS+/ORC Macro, June 2004, p. 29, http://dhsprogram.com/pubs/pdf/od31/od31.pdf (accessed December 13, 2016).
[v] Globally, one out of every four girls marries before age 18. Some 15 million girls marry before the age of 18 each year. There are 720 million women, and 156 million men, alive today who married before the age of 18. The rate of child marriage is dropping, but population increases mean that if child marriage were to continue at today’s rate, by 2050 there would be 1.2 billion women alive who married as children. Child marriage takes place across religions, and occurs in every region of the world including North America and Europe. Ibid, p. 10.