Several states consider bills to address child marriages

By Susan Haigh, Associated Press | Posted - Mar. 10, 2017 at 3:34 p.m.

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HARTFORD, Conn. (AP) — Several states are considering legislation this year to end or curb child marriages.

A Connecticut bill would prohibit marriage licenses for anyone under 18, and is awaiting committee action. Legislation also has been proposed in New Jersey, New Hampshire, New York, Texas, Missouri, Maryland and Pennsylvania.

While the legal age to marry in Connecticut state is already 18, state law also allows 16- and 17-year-olds to marry as long as they have parental consent. Children, 15 or younger, can marry if they obtain approval from a parent and a probate court judge.

Human rights activists say such exceptions have led to forced and arranged child marriages.

"We know that girls that are married as children are more likely to experience domestic violence," said Fraidy Reiss, the founder and executive director of the New Jersey-based nonprofit Unchained At Last, which works to help women and girls escape arranged and forced marriages.

Reiss is pushing to pass legislation in several states this year. She said Connecticut's law doesn't provide a process to ensure parental consent is not coerced and sets no minimum age for marriage that probate judges must follow.

According to the most recently available statistics, the Connecticut Department of Public Health says 159 females and 28 males under 18 were married in Connecticut between 2011 and 2015, out of a total of 96,452 marriages.

Reiss said the department data she reviewed show about 1,140 children as young as 14 were married in Connecticut between 2000 and 2014, with more than 88 percent of the girls wed to older men.

Legislation also has been proposed in New Jersey, New Hampshire, New York, Texas, Missouri, Maryland and Pennsylvania.

Some bills include exceptions, such as the New York proposal, which would still allow 17-year-olds to marry with a judge's consent. Virginia last year passed legislation that prohibits marriage licenses for people under 18 except for emancipated minors, Reiss said.

The New Hampshire House on Thursday rejected a bill that would have increased the minimum marriage age to 18. Republican lawmakers argued it would hurt young military members and pregnant teenagers. GOP Rep. David Bates said the legislation would have made it impossible for 17-year-olds who join the military to marry before they deploy, resulting in more children being born out of wedlock.

Bushra Farook, 17, a senior at Brien McMahon High School in Norwalk, Connecticut, is hoping state lawmakers pass the legislation.

When she was 13, her mother married a man whose extended family lives in Bangladesh. Farook told legislators about how her new stepfather one day questioned her plans for the future.

"I thought he was genuinely concerned about me," she said. "I could not have been more wrong. He was looking to marry me to one of his nephews."

When she turned 16, Farook said, her mother expressed support for her getting married. Farook was then introduced to a man who was eight years older for a possible husband. Farook said the prospects caused her stress and she performed poorly in school, until her mother backed off on the idea of marriage.

"Our relationship is healthy again, and I'm focusing on school and my own individual future," she said. "I cannot help but think, though, that the experiences over the past four years have shaped my life forever."

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Susan Haigh


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