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New York state raises age of legal consent to 18, banning child marriage

People in their mid-teens can wed through various legal loopholes and exceptions in most states, and about a dozen have no minimum age.
Image: New York Governor Andrew Cuomo attends an event in New York
New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo speaks at his offices in New York on March 18.Seth Wenig / Pool via Reuters

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo signed a bill Thursday that raises the age of consent to be married to 18 — effectively banning child marriage.

The bill, called Nalia's Law, is named after a survivor who was forced into marriage at age 13. New York raised the age of consent from 14 to 17 with parental or judicial consent in 2017.

"This administration fought hard to successfully end child marriage in New York and I'm proud to sign this legislation to strengthen our laws and further protect vulnerable children from exploitation," Cuomo, a Democrat, said in a statement. "Children should be allowed to live their childhood and I thank the many legislators and advocates who worked diligently to advance this measure and further prevent forced marriages in this state."

Child marriage happens in America through various legal loopholes and exceptions at the state level, which is where marriage licenses are issued, experts say. Unchained At Last, a national advocacy group that advocates for ending child marriage and lobbied for the New York bill, said five other states have passed similar laws banning all marriage before age 18: Delaware, Minnesota, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Rhode Island.

A majority of states allow 16- and 17-year-olds to marry, a few allow 14-year-olds, and about a dozen have no minimum marriage age, according to the Tahirih Justice Center, an advocacy group for people fleeing violence. But even as more states act to end child marriage, concerns about government overreach, along with scant data about the extent of the problem, have driven skepticism about reform in both red and blue states.

Nearly 300,000 minors — people under age 18 — were legally married in the U.S. from 2000 to 2018, according to a study in April by Unchained At Last. Several were as young as 10; nearly all were 16 or 17, the study said. Most were young girls married to adult men an average of four years older.

New York's bill will fine anyone issuing a marriage license to an ineligible person and charge the issuer with a misdemeanor, according to the bill. The legislation, which takes effect 30 days after it becomes law, will apply to licenses issued after that date and to marriages that had not been completed before then.

State Rep. Phil Ramos, a Democratic sponsor of the legislation, said the bill will "prevent stories like Nalia's from repeating themselves."

State Sen. Julia Salazar, another Democratic sponsor, said in a statement that child marriage has "devastating consequences" for the life trajectory of young girls and that the bill would protect them.

"Regardless of maturity level, minors lack sufficient legal rights and autonomy that they need to protect them if they enter a marriage contract before becoming adults," she said.