The New Jersey Assembly has approved a measure banning anyone younger than 18 from marrying or entering into a civil union.
The staunchest advocate for the legislation was Fraidy Reiss, the founder of Unchained at Last, a group that helps women escape from forced marriages.
Children can be forced into a marriage or forced to stay in one because they cannot easily access the resources to protect themselves, she said.
“It’s difficult for them to leave home, access a shelter. A child who leaves home is considered a runaway, shelters typically won’t take in children,” she said. “And then, even bringing a legal action … a child is generally not allowed to bring a legal action in his or her own name. So it’s unclear right now whether in New Jersey a child is even allowed to file for divorce.”
The bill’s primary sponsor, Assemblywoman Nancy Munoz, said child marriages have the potential for abuse.
“Sometimes the parents are forcing these young girls to be married if they become pregnant,” said Munoz, R-Union. “And, in some cases … it could be even in the case of rape that they’re being forced to marry their rapists. So we need to protect these young girls from forced marriages, and this is the best way to do it.”
Nearly 3,500 girls as young as 13 were married in New Jersey between 1995 and 2012, said Reiss. Almost all of them were wed to adult men.
Studies show child marriage increases a girl’s risk of domestic violence and hurts her education and economic opportunities.
The legislation is still awaiting action in the state Senate.