Sonia Ossorio of NOW-NYC addresses the crowd at a protest against US laws allowing child marriage.

© 2016 Susan Landmann

People don’t believe me when I tell them that child marriage is legal in New York, and that state law permits children as young as 14 to marry if they have permission from their parents and the court. “What?” people almost shout at me. “You’re joking!”

Then they say something like, “But that must be an ancient law – of course no one that young actually gets married, right?”

Well, actually they do. Between 2001 and 2010, 3,850 children under the age of 18 married in New York. Most were 16 or 17, but some were 15 and, yes, 14. The vast majority were underage girls marrying adult men.

This week, we moved a step closer to ending child marriage in New York. Both houses of the New York state legislature have now passed legislation that bans all marriage of children under the age of 17, and permits 17-year-olds to marry only with permission from a judge. Everyone else would have to wait until they are 18.

There’s one step left – Governor Andrew Cuomo must sign the bill in order for it to become law.

He should definitely sign it.

Child marriage – marriage before the age of 18 – is deeply harmful to children who marry and their children. Married children often drop out of school and are locked in poverty as a result. Married girls often have early pregnancies, which carry health risks – including death – for them and their babies. Girls who marry earlier are at higher risk of domestic violence than women. Married girls often face extra barriers in escaping an abusive or unhappy marriage and accessing shelter and legal assistance.

Countries around the world have committed to end child marriage by 2030, and many are developing plans to meet this goal. Donor countries, including the United States, have given funds to help developing countries fight child marriage. Germany, Malawi, Nepal, the Netherlands, Spain, and Sweden are among the countries that recently changed their laws in an effort to reduce child marriage.

In the US, things are moving, but slowly. Twenty-seven states still have no minimum age for how early children can marry if a judge signs off. New York has a chance to show leadership and be one of the first states to move toward ending child marriage. Come on, Governor Cuomo, protect New York’s girls.