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New Jersey lawmakers pass bill banning child marriage

The New Jersey legislature passed a bill Monday that will ban marriage for those under the age of 18 without exception — the first state law of its kind.

“Marriage is a legal contract and it should be reserved for adults,” Sen. Nellie Pou (D-Passaic), a sponsor of the bill, said. “It is startling for people to learn that there are many underage marriages happening here in New Jersey. As a state, we have a responsibility to protect our residents, and moral obligation to protect children and this bill takes the necessary steps to do that.”

The bill, which passed 26-5, awaits Gov. Chris Christie’s signature.

Opponents of the bill said the legislation is unnecessary given the standing provisions against child marriage.But New Jersey is one of several states considering bills to eliminate child marriage or tighten loopholes that allow it. While forced marriage is more common in other countries, every state has exemptions that allow children under 18 — the legal age of consent — to marry.

“It’s important to combat the idea that Americans have that this is an ‘over there’ problem, it’s an everywhere problem, including right in our backyard,” said Lyric Thompson, the co-chair of Girls Not Brides USA co-chair.

As PBS NewsHour reported last year, thousands of women in the U.S. are forced into marriage every year. Unchained at Last, a nonprofit that helps women escape forced marriages, estimates more than 167,000 children between 12 and 17 years old were married between 2000 and 2010 in the 38 states for which data was available. Estimating numbers from the 12 other states and Washington, D.C., the group says about a quarter million children under 18 years old married in that period of time.

At age 19, Nina Van Harn felt like she couldn’t say no when she was expected to marry a man chosen by her family. PBS NewsHour special correspondent Gayle Tzemach Lemmon tells her story.

Child marriage can result in mental and physical health problems according to a 2011 Journal of Pediatrics study. Young brides are more likely to face poverty and girls who marry under 19 are 50 percent more likely to drop out of high school and four times less likely to graduate from college.

“For better or for worse we have many different battlegrounds,” said Fraidy Reiss, founder and executive director of Unchained at Last, who said the victory in New Jersey took more than 18 months. “The legislation will not eliminate child marriage, but it’s a significant step forward. Legislation can affect ideals and norms.”

Connecticut, Maryland and Massachusetts are already each following in New Jersey’s footsteps by considering bills that would bar any person under 18 years old from marrying in their states. A Pennsylvania legislator is poised to introduce a similar bill, Reiss said.

New York and Missouri are also discussing ways to curb child marriage. Lawmakers in Texas introduced a bipartisan bill that would prevent children under 18 years old from marrying unless a court has declared they are legal adults. That measure is similar to a law Virginia passed last year.

Child advocates praise state efforts to close loopholes created by exceptions for parental consent.

Jada, an American girl from New Jersey whose father took her to live in Saudi Arabia, talked to PBS NewsHour about his plans to marry her off — starting when she was 12 years old.

“These provisions are dangerously misguided and do nothing to help child protection, but instead facilitate child abuse and exploitation,” said Jeanne Smoot, senior counsel for policy and strategy at the Tahirih Justice Center.

Smoot said parents don’t always have children’s best interests in mind and can coerce or pressure children into marriage. Even when judges are involved, as under some of the proposed legislation, they often don’t have enough training in family matters or child abuse cases to recognize red flags for domestic abuse or forced marriage.

In addition to strengthening state measures, child advocates also seek greater federal assistance in cases in which U.S. girls are taken overseas for a child marriage.

“We won’t stop. There are 49 more states to go and in some of the states there is already progress,” Reiss said. “It’s the girls that reached out that push me to keep going.”

This article has been updated to clarify what child advocates seek from federal authorities. The original headline incorrectly stated that New Jersey was the first state to ban child marriage. The governor must still sign the bill for it to become law.