Should New York Raise the Age for Child Marriages?

Mar 24, 2017

Safia Mahjebin on the left and Dorchen Leidholdt of Sanctuary for Families.
Credit Topher Forhecz for WBGO

The New York State legislature is considering raising the legal age of marriage from as young as 14-years-old to 17-years-old. Advocates say child marriages are forced and can lead to abuse.    Safia Mahjebin grew up in a Bangladeshi community in Brooklyn… She says the idea of marriage was always there.

"As far as a child has a memory I can remember marriage being in the air. If anyone in the community wanted good for me, they would say I hope you marry a doctor. I hope he takes care of you." 

She had seen others marry young – including a friend who was engaged at 16-years-old to a 24-year-old man.  Mahjebin says her own parents started seriously talking to her about marriage when she was around 15. She pushed back… and the situation got worse...

"In the beginning it was a lot of just verbal… it was verbal abuse…But I didn’t back down because I understood that what they were using to emotionally intimidate me was besides the point. The issues that I was talking about.. about standing up for women’s rights in my community were separate from what I was as a person… and then when that didn’t work… it became violent. I think there was violence for about three years."

Right now, a 14 or 15-year-old child in New York state can be married so long as they have parental and judicial consent. And 16 and 17 year olds can be married with just parental consent. Mahjebin says her parents would have tried to marry her off young if they understood state law.

"There’s an ignorance even within my community, an assumption that the United States protects the rights of women and girls and doesn’t allow child marriage because of their ignorance of the law, I didn’t get married in the United States."

Child marriages are happening across the United States. The advocacy group Unchained At Last says 248,000 children were married nationwide from 2000 to 2010. Almost 3,900 children were married in New York during that time. The New York legislature is addressing this with a bill that raises the legal age of marriage to 17 years old. The bill’s Assembly sponsor – Democrat Amy Paulin of Scarsdale - says these New York cases often involve young women marrying older men.

"It would be statutory rape if they weren’t married. If somebody who is under 17 is having sexual relations with someone who is over- and these are much bigger age gaps usually."

She says these marriages cause young women to also lose educational opportunities.  Paulin’s bill makes it so that a 17-year-old needs parental AND judicial consent to get married. She also tried to address whether or not the child is being pressured into the marriage.

" We put in there that the judge has to give findings as to why they think this is in the girl’s best interest. The girl has to have an independent lawyer appointed by the court so that it’s clear that this girl is the one that wants to get married.”

Dorchen Leidholdt is with Sanctuary For Families, an organization that provides legal and other services for vulnerable women and children. Leidholdt says she’s seen child marriages occur in a range of communities from South Asian to Latin American.

"This is a problem principally in traditional, often religiously observant communities across faiths. So we can’t identify it with any particular faith, so it’s much more cultural than religious and happens across faiths."

As for Safia Mahjebin, she no longer lives with her parents. She left about six months ago. She now interns for Sanctuary For Families, and speaks out against child marriage.

"I don’t think I can stop until I’m sure that all 15-year-old Safia’s and all 16-years-old Safia’s are safe and know that they have the rights and know that they have rights and resources that they deserve."

Mahjebin supports Paulin’s bill. But, she says but there’s still more to do. She says lawmakers also need to focus on women forced into marriage who are of legal age.

Click above to hear Topher Forhecz's entire report.