Love anytime. Marriage only after 18, in New Jersey

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A bill which prohibits marriage before the age of 18, is steps away from being passed by the New Jersey state legislature, Bhargavi Kulkarni reports

New Jersey is on the verge of becoming the first state in the United States to prohibit anyone younger than 18 from getting married. At present, children ages 16 and 17 may marry with parental consent. Also, children under 16 may marry if they obtain parental consent and a state judge’s approval.

The New Jersey state Senate committee on Feb. 6, approved a bill to that effect. If passed, the bill (A3091) would make New Jersey the first state in the nation to remove all exceptions to the law that says people must be 18 years old to get married.

The measure passed the state Assembly, 64-0, in November, and the action approved by the Senate panel sets up a vote for final passage in the full Senate.

Nearly 3,500 people younger than age 18 got married in New Jersey between 1995 and 2012 – the equivalent of one every two days for 18 years. One hundred sixty-three were 15 years old or younger, averaging nine a year, a NJ101.5 report said.

Forced Marriages

Satarupa Dasgupta, an advocate with Manavi, a New Jersey-based women’s rights organization says the issue of forced marriages is prevalent in all communities, and is not particular to just the South Asian community. However, “dynamics of the forced marriages remain the same,” she contends.

Ganga Shakti, a Boston-based organization that deals specifically in forced marriages, describes it as a marriage with an absence of consent from one or both parties. “A forced marriage is one in which coercion, violence, and/or fraud is used to cause the marriage,” founder Sri Vidya says. “There is a presence of duress and an absence of free will in a forced marriage that differentiates it from other types of marriages including an arranged marriage, where, although the parties to the marriage are introduced to each other, the final decision to marry remains with the two parties,” she clarifies.

“When you get married at a younger age you are not mature enough, says Anju Bhargava, a management consultant, and a member of President Barack Obama’s inaugural Advisory Council on Faith Based and Neighborhood Partnership. Teen marriages in the U.S. have a high incidence of failure and the young children may not be able to maturely deal with whatever situations they face in their married lives,” she notes. “It impacts your growth, your financial wherewithal, she says, adding that “some people could be lucky to rediscover themselves at a later stage in their lives”, but those numbers might be few.

Protecting Family Honor

According to Fraidy Reiss, founder and executive director of Unchained At Last, a nonprofit based in Westfield, New jersey, that helps women and girls escape forced marriages, there are three main reasons why parents will marry off their children.

Often, it’s religious or cultural. Sometimes there is an economic benefit involved, such as a child married to somebody from overseas so that person can get a United States visa. And sometimes it is to control a child’s behavior or sexuality.

In a 2015 Opinion piece in The New York Times, Reiss wrote that forced and child marriages happen almost everywhere, yet only 10 states or jurisdictions have specific laws that can be used to prevent or punish forced marriage. The Tahirih survey on Forced Marriage in Immigrant Communities in the United States focused on immigrants, and it identified child marriages or forced marriages, or both, in immigrant communities from 56 countries of origin in Africa, Asia, Europe and the Americas, but it also identified such marriage in so-called American families.

The survey found child marriage or forced marriage, or both, in families of many faiths, including Muslim, Christian (particularly Catholic), Hindu, Buddhist and Sikh, as well as the Orthodox Jewish community, and the Mormon and Unification Church backgrounds.

The New Jersey data in the 2014 Tahiri Survey showed that 90 percent of the children married were girls, which is consistent with global trends.

Across the world, child marriage and forced marriage disproportionately affect girls and women. Globally, 88 percent of countries set 18 as the minimum marriage age, but over half allow minor girls to marry with “parental consent,” according to the World Policy Center. More than 700 million women alive today were married before 18, including some 250 million who wed before 15, according to the United Nations Children’s Fund. Most live in South Asia or sub-Saharan Africa, but as these new numbers show, too many live right here in the United States, Reiss noted.

Since there is no more stigma about children out of wedlock or premarital sex, Bhargava feels that one should not dilute the sanctity of marriage by forcing underage girls into wedlock. “A marriage is the union of two people out of love, out of choice, and not out of force,” she asserts.

Opposition To Bill

There is some opposition within the New Jersey legislature, to the marriage age bill. State Sen. Michael Doherty (R-Warren), who voted against the bill, insisted there should be exceptions to the law, arguing for people enlisting in the military, saying they often marry young. He also raised the possibility of teenage girls who get pregnant before the age of 18, want to tie the knot, and would find it hard to get health insurance on their own, NJ Advance Media reported.

Assemblyman John McKeon, D-Essex, said studies have framed the issue as “a form of slavery” but added that there could be valid reasons to allow 17-year-olds to marry if that’s what they choose – such as an unexpected pregnancy, or before a boyfriend or girlfriend in the military deploys overseas.

Although 18 is not a magic number, many like Reiss and Bhargava believe that there is a certain level of maturity that can be associated with that age and is essential to protect children, mainly young girls who are forced into arranged marriages with older men, who sometimes turn out to be abusive and domineering. Also, several people under the age of 18 don’t have the same access to domestic violence shelters and attorneys.

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