Naila Amin, 31, was a child bride in Pakistan at the age of 13; she now has a law named after her that bans the practice in New York state.
Gov. Andrew Cuomo recently signed a bill into law raising the age of marriage consent to 18 in New York. Called “Naila’s Law,” it went into effect Saturday.
Child marriage is when someone under the age of 18 becomes legally married to an adult. Such minors, more likely girls than boys, are often forced into marriage because of socioeconomic factors by families who want to minimize their economic burden or earn income as a result of the marriage, according to UNICEF. Religious and cultural norms also contribute to its ongoing practice.
The practice is technically still legal in 44 U.S. states, as most allow marriage before 18. Cuomo signed legislation in New York in 2017 that raised the age of consent to marry from 14 to 18, but 17-year-olds could be married with parental and judicial consent.
Amin, an activist, founded the Naila Amin Foundation to help victims of child marriage and has been pushing U.S. states to end it for years. In 2018, she helped New Jersey raise the minimum marriage age to 18, making it the second state to do so.
Shortly after, Amin went to New York state Assemblyman Philip Ramos’ office in Brentwood on Long Island and told him about being a former child bride. “This story just touched my heart and it moved me to come up with legislation to outlaw child marriage,” Ramos said.
Because of the pandemic, Amin saw the proposed bill start to “slip through the cracks.”
“I emailed every Assembly member and every senator in New York state with my story and said please support this bill,” Amin said. “I think it was about 150 Assembly members and it took me days, but I did it. We can’t let this happen to our children anymore."
Once she found out the bill had cleared unanimously, she called Cuomo’s office daily to urge him to sign it, leaving her with a feeling of anxiety. She partnered up with Unchained At Last, an organization dedicated to ending forced and child marriage, which promised to begin protesting outside Cuomo’s office weekly if the bill wasn’t turned into a law.
“I am so sick of crying over this because it’s like repeating myself all over again. Why can’t we just end it?" Amin said.
When Cuomo finally signed the bill, making New York the sixth state to ban child marriage, Amin said it felt "almost surreal, a very happy feeling."
“When I found out about it, I was laying on a couch and I just started crying tears of happiness,” she said.
Amin says this is only the beginning, as her goal is to end child marriage in all 50 states. She is currently working on a federal bill to have U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services raise the spousal sponsorship to 18. Her goals stem from personal experience, as she never got to experience childhood.
During a trip to her cousin’s wedding in Pakistan, Amin found out that she was engaged at 8 years old to her first cousin Tariq. Five years later, she found herself at a Nikah ceremony, a traditional Islamic marriage that is done without an official marriage license. She married her 21-year-old cousin against her will.
During her marriage, Amin lived in constant fear, finding herself curled up on the floor waiting to be beaten or raped. Her father applied to legalize the marriage and for an American spousal visa so that Tariq could become a U.S. citizen.
About a year later, she returned to the U.S. and once her parents found out she had started a relationship there, they beat her. Amin was taken away by Child Protective Services and put into foster care. She later ran away and returned home.
She was eventually sent back to Pakistan right before she turned 15 to consummate the marriage. Three months later, she was rescued by the U.S. Embassy and brought back to New York, where she was no longer considered Tariq’s wife.
The fact that Amin was still technically a ward of the foster care system in the U.S. saved her life.
The Pew Research Center says asking for judicial consent or presenting parents’ permission are ways to bypass the minimum age to marry in many states.
Unchained At Last recently released a study that found that Citizenship and Immigration Services approved 8,868 petitions involving minors for spousal or fiancé entry into the U.S. from 2007 to 2017. The younger party was a girl in 95 percent of the petitions.
“The age of marriage needs to be higher to eliminate child marriage,” Fraidy Reiss, Unchained's founder and executive director, said. “We’re talking about that rare legislation that harms no one except child rapists — it costs nothing. This simple commonsense legislation ends a human rights abuse and we can do this right here today; legislators just need to step up.”
The survivor-led organization provides free legal and social services to help individuals resist or escape.
“Our ultimate goal is to help all the survivors we work with to achieve full financial and emotional independence, and we have been able to help more than 700 people in this way,” Reiss said, who is a victim of a strictly Orthodox forced marriage that took her 15 years to get out of.
As of 2020, there were an estimated 285 million child brides in South Asia. About 59 percent of girls are married before the age of 18 in Bangladesh, 27 percent in India and 18 percent in Pakistan, according to data from Girls Not Brides. The Women’s Refuge Commission says South Asian families force their daughters into child marriage as it is perceived to be the best means to provide economic and physical security.
Even though almost half of all women in South Asia aged 20-24 reported being married before the age of 18, the rates of child marriage are currently decreasing in the region. Amin stressed that child marriage does not happen only to South Asian women, but it also affects women in other countries.
In Latin America and the Caribbean, about 1 in 4 women are married before 18. Most of the top 20 countries with the highest prevalence rates of child marriage are in Africa, with Niger having the highest child marriage rate in the world. In west and central Africa, about 41 percent of girls in the region marry before reaching the age of 18.
It also greatly affects women in the U.S., as approximately 40 children are married each day in America. Nearly 300,000 minors under the age of 18 were legally married in the U.S. from 2000 to 2018, according to a recent study. States with the highest per-capita rates of child marriage include Arkansas, Idaho, Kentucky, Nevada and Oklahoma.
Child marriage in the U.S. is typically driven by poverty or social and cultural norms.
“People need to get that out of their head that this is a Muslim issue because it’s not. It’s American,” Amin said.
Casey Swegman, the Forced Marriage Initiative project manager at the Tahirih Justice Center, said child marriage can have physical, economic, social and mental impacts, including depression and a loss of education.
Amin still endures those effects today as she suffers from an anxiety disorder and has developed psoriasis.
“It’s a trauma response and it’s just been really hard,” Amin said. “But I know that my two-and-a-half years of work was really worth it. This is one of the proudest moments of my life.”
Amin says her past has taught her resiliency and how to survive.
“I’ve been surviving for the past 31 years,” she said. “It made me realize that there is a fire inside of me that can’t be extinguished. It made me realize women can do anything, we can do anything.”