Assemblywoman Amy Paulin, D-Scarsdale, is hoping to change the marriage laws in New York state to protect children as young as 14 from being forced into marriages.
“Victims of child marriage are forced and condemned to a life that they did not choose,” Paulin said, “with no means of escape, resulting in physical and mental health problems, loss of education and economic opportunities and an increased likelihood of experiencing violence.”
Her new bill (A.5524) would make it illegal in New York state for children under the age of 17 to enter into marriage. And those who are 17 but not 18 would need consent from their legal guardian as well as a court determination that the marriage has not been forced.
In New York state, “shockingly, 3,853 children were married between 2000 and 2010,” Paulin said. More than 84 percent of children married were girls. “Many of these marriages have age differences that would have triggered statutory rape charges,” she added.
Marriage laws vary from state to state, and in New York children as young as 14 years-old can marry legally. Those minors can only marry if they have parental consent, and if they are younger than 16, they need both parental consent and approval of the court.
Under the current system, when a child is brought to court for “consent” the reality is that the parents have threatened the child with beatings, ostracism or death if the child refuses to marry, according to Paulin and supporters of the bill.
To make matters worse, children cannot sue for divorce in their own name. Any child who wants a divorce would need to sue through a parent or guardian, who most likely forced the child into marriage in the first place.
Safia Mahjebin, a young woman from the Bangladeshi community in Brooklyn, shared her own experiences with this issue during a meeting with reporters in Albany recently. She joined Paulin and other supporters of the bill to explain how current marriage laws affect real women in her community.
Mahjebin had felt the pressure of marriage from her parents since she was 10-years-old. When she was 16-year-old, her friend’s forced marriage exacerbated the pressure from her parents.
“My friend’s marriage prompted my parents to try and ‘convince’ me to get married, again,” said Mahjebin. “What started off with just simple mind games, where they made me feel like I was nothing, that I didn’t do anything for them and the least I could do as a could daughter was marry someone that they chose.”
She continues, “The mind games didn’t work. So they switched to verbal abuse, and that turned into physical abuse. At that time I just started college, and to evade the unwarranted violence that was so irrational, my mere presence in my home was enough to provoke their rage.”
She talked about how she broke free from the pressure of her family.
“I would make it a routine to stay late after school at college way past anyone else. My strange routine caught the attention of one of the deans at Hunter College, and I got a call from her one day and she asked me am I OK? And for some reason she gets the feeling that I was unsafe in my own home.”
The dean offered Mahjebin a place to live on campus, and she was able to move out of her home. “I survived the pressure,” said Mahjebin, “and I survived early enough to not have to be a victim of child marriage. I was lucky.”
Fortunately, both Mahjebin and her friend were lucky. “She didn’t represent the so many of people that I’ve known, girls that I’ve known, who have simply vanished,” said Mahjebin.
Video produced by Kaleb H. Smith
Paulin recognizes that Mahjebin’s story is all-too-common in New York, and the state’s laws don’t do enough to protect young women.
“New York laws at best could be labeled antiquated,” Paulin said. “It reflects a time when people would marry younger, but times have changed.”
New York City Councilman Andrew Cohen, who spoke in Albany to promote the bill at the recent press conference, said, “From their experience I was convinced … of the necessity of this law, of changing the law in the state of New York.”
Cohen introduced Resolution 1244 in which the City Council calls on the State Legislature to pass the bill, and for Gov. Andrew Cuomo to sign it.
“It makes no sense,” continued Cohen, “as the assemblywoman stated, under other circumstances this would be statutory rape.”
In New York state statutory rape is defined as a person who is 18 or older having sexual intercourse with someone who is 16 and under, even if the sex is consensual. Statutory rape charges in New York vary depending on circumstance of age, and range from Class B misdemeanors to Class B felonies.
Executive Director of Unchained At Last, Fraidy Reiss, founded the non-profit organization to help women in a forced marriage, or those who are facing a soon forced marriage, get out.
“I was shocked when more and more girls under the age of 18 were calling and asking for help,” Reiss said. “I was horrified that there was almost nothing that I could do to help them.”
Unchained At Last hosted a Chain-In event during and after the press conference in the Capitol, where members dressed in bridal gowns and veils to protest child- and forced-marriage in New York and across the United States.
The Senate companion bill (S.4407) is sponsored by Andrew Lanza.
Linda Lopez, deputy director of Sanctuary for Families, cited multiple heinous results of child marriage. “I first met Graciela when she was trying to regain custody of her three-year-old child,” said Lopez. “She described being raped by a 23-year-old neighbor when she was twelve years old. Ashamed, her mother forced her to marry him.”
Sanctuary for Families is a New York City based organization dedicated to the safety, healing and self-determination of victims of domestic violence and related forms of gender violence.
“Through our work we have seen firsthand the devastating effect of child marriage,” said Lopez. “Contrary to what many people believe, child marriage is not something that occurs in lands far, far away. It occurs in the United States, and it occurs in New York.”
The bill was introduced last session, but since that time, Paulin and advocates have worked on the bill to make sure it doesn’t infringe upon any constitutional rights.
“We are trying to talk to some of the religious groups that might have concern,” Paulin said, “and so far we haven’t had any that do have concern. So we’re very happy about that.”
Child marriage is often associated with religious connotations, but Paulin believes it is about more than religious freedom.
“It’s not culturally okay for a 14-year-old to get married knowing that that 14-year-old will be deprived education, to experience tenth grade,” Paulin said. Children forced into marriage are, by current New York state law, unable to divorce or sign prenuptial agreements.
“I think that we have reached a point where we have that understanding,” said Paulin, “and now it’s time to change the law to accommodate that understanding.”