|NYSNYS NEWS: Protesters call for repeal of law allowing men to marry children in NYS.|
|CHILD MARRIAGE:Three of the protesters Tuesday against New York's child marriage law --- NYSNYS News photo|
By Kyle Hughes
ALBANY, N.Y. (February 14) -- Demonstrators in white wedding-dress costumes, including one man, paraded between the Senate and Assembly chambers Tuesday, urging legislators to repeal a state law that permits children as young as 14 to be legally married.
"Child marriage is not just a problem that occurs in countries on the other side of the globe," said Assembly member Amy Paulin (D-Scarsdale). "It happens right here in our very own backyard."
"Child marriage is forced marriage," she added. "It is driven by poverty, deeply embedded beliefs, and signifies a pervasive discrimination against young girls."
The costumed group held an impromptu press conference outside the entrance to the state Senate, drawing reprimands from security guards for blocking the aisle. They later chanted and sang outside the Assembly, before being barred by guards from entering an antechamber crowded with lobbyists and hangers-on.
The group Unchained at Last said that at least 3,850 children between the ages of 14 and 18 were legally married in New York from 2000-2010 with the permission of parents or guardians. In 84 percent of the marriages, the girls were married to adult men.
Nationally, the group estimates 248,000 minor girls were married during the same time period.
If they are 14 or 15, a court must also sign off on the nuptials. Paulin's bill would completely prohibit marriage of children younger than 17, and only permit marriage of 17 and 18 year olds with the permission of a judge.
Advocates said forced or underage marriage occur in both immigrant cultures and in families that have been here for generations. In New York, it occurs in both Orthodox Jewish and Islamic communities.
"It is just outrageous and unconscionable that New York state law allows for 14, 15, 16 year olds to get married," said New York City Council member Andrew Cohen (D-Bronx), who has sponsored a resolution calling for the law's repeal.
The organizer of Tuesday's demonstration was Fraidy Reiss, the founder of Unchained at Last, who said she was forced into a marriage at age 19.
If a girl in a forced marriage is younger than 18 in New York, "if she leaves home, she's considered a runaway. The police with return her to her home. They might charge us Unchained at Last for helping. If we get her to a shelter, shelters will turn her away typically. They will not take in somebody under the age of 18."
She said girls under 18 in forced marriages can't hire their own lawyers or bring legal actions under their own names.
"Think of the outrageous situation we have here in New York where a child is allowed to marry but not allowed to file for divorce," Reiss said. "How could this be allowed?"
Paulin said New York law is rife with inconsistencies on the issue of child marriages.
"An adult can sexually abuse a child and avoid statutory rape charges by marrying the child," she said in a statement issued to reporters. "If an adult has sex with someone 16 or younger it is statutory rape but if the adult marries the child, then he can force her to have non-consensual sex whenever he wants. A child under 17 does not have the capacity to consent to sex under our penal law."
Paulin said children can seek marriage annulments in her own name, but "she does not have the right to counsel and the state will not cover her attorney’s fees. And even if she did get the marriage annulled, annulment does not allow for property distribution or spousal maintenance, essentially condemning the young girl to a life of poverty. She would likely be cut off from her family, without access to education and work opportunities, particularly if she has children. Child marriage is associated with early pregnancies because child brides are often unable to negotiate access to safe sex and medical care."
Also in New York, children going to domestic violence shelters to escape a marriage are sent to general homeless shelters that do not provide the confidentiality and service given to domestic abuse victims, Paulin said. "In addition, minors are not permitted to voluntarily stay at runaway/ homeless youth shelters longer than 30 days, and their guardians must be notified of their whereabouts within 72 hours of admission into the shelter."