Stopping the Theft of Youth: New York Becomes Sixth State to Outlaw Underage Marriage

The survivors’ and advocates’ pleas are clear: Let children experience their childhoods.

A girl holds up a drawing of a bride and groom during a discussion about child marriage. (DFID / Flickr)

On Thursday, July 22, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo signed legislation that raised the age of consent to marriage from 14 to 18—making New York only the sixth state in the U.S. to end child marriage

Proposed by New York state Senator Julia Salazar and Assemblymember Phil Ramos, the bill, colloquially known as Nalia’s Law to honor a 13-year-old survivor of child marriage, removes all exceptions for underage marriages. 

Cuomo heralded the move as a “major step forward in our efforts to protect children and prevent forced marriages.” 

According to Unchained at Last, an organization fighting to end child marriage in the United States, about 300,000 children were married in the U.S. between 2000 and 2018. New York played host to nearly 5,000 of those underage marriages.

Joining the ranks of states like New Jersey, Delaware, Pennsylvania, Minnesota and Rhode Island, officials in New York are giving children more time to be children. Studies have long shown children don’t reach full mental maturity until several years after they are legally adults. One Duke University study concluded that maturation is reached around 24 years old, when the grey matter seen in the cerebral cortex is almost completely reduced.

In January of 2020, the Tahirih Justice Center published a compilation of survivors’ stories and accounts of their underage marriages. One survivor, Michelle, explained how her own mother was the driving force behind her underage marriage after she had run away from home:

“She told me that in order for me to get out [of jail] I would have to marry my friend/boyfriend or she would leave me in there. I was terrified. He was 23 and I just turned 16 a few days later. I agreed just to get out of there. I was young, dumb and scared. She also told me that if I would marry him that I could stay with her until I found somewhere to go.” 

According to an August 2020 report from the International Center for Research on Women (ICRW), women married before the age of 16 are 31 percent more likely to live below the poverty line. Women married before the age of 18 are also 43 percent more likely to develop major depressive disorder. Ultimately, four of five child marriages end in divorce, separation or death. 

Although women make up the largest percentage of underage spouses, young boys are also exploited through the same legal loopholes in states where underage marriage is legal.

“Child grooms are forced to take on adult responsibilities for which they may not be ready,” said Henrietta Fore, UNICEF director. “Early marriage brings early fatherhood, and with it added pressure to provide for a family, cutting short education and job opportunities.” 

While New York’s move towards protecting their young people is a step in the right direction, children won’t be guaranteed safety until child marriage is illegal in all states in the U.S. and all countries. The survivors’ and advocates’ pleas are clear: Let children experience their childhoods.

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Ramona Flores is an editorial fellow with Ms. and is completing her undergraduate studies at Smith College, with a double major in government and the study of women and gender. Her academic focuses include Marxist feminism, transnational collective organizing and queer history. Her writing covers internet subcultures, reproductive care advocacy and queer theory. She hails from Austin, Texas.