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Editorial: Raising the age for marriage consent will help protect minors from abuse

Anyone under the age of 18 is just starting out on life’s journey to adulthood. Yet in New York, nearly 4,000 minors were married between 2000 and 2010. Even more troubling, more than 84 percent of those were girls married to adult men.

Another stunning fact is the current minimum age – 14 – for someone to be married in this state. It takes parental consent and court approval, but can be done. The path becomes easier for those 16 or 17; they need only parental or guardian consent to marry.

There are so many ways this is wrong, starting with the possibility that an adult marrying a minor may be taking cruel advantage of a child. After all, children under 17 don’t have the legal capacity to consent to sex.

Even more troubling are the prospects of forced marriages involving children and sham marriages involving sexual trafficking. Both are scourges upon society. There is no defense, no argument that can ever convince reasonable people that marriage of minor children under these conditions is justified.

It is, therefore, easy to support Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s effort to raise the age of marriage consent to 18. For 17-year-olds, written consent would be required by both parents and a judge. And judges would be required to interview minors applying to marry.

Fraidy Reiss, head of Unchained At Last, a nonprofit that helps women and girls leave or avoid forced marriages, makes the case that the law should allow 17-year-olds to get married if a judge approves. Other states, including most around New York, are taking steps to ban marriages by anyone under the age of 18.

Nadia Shahram, an attorney and matrimonial mediator in Williamsville, raised the issue of immigrant families who send their daughters back to their home countries to get married once they reach middle school.

Education is key, as Shahram said, particularly as it relates to the estimated 3,000 known or suspected forced marriages in the United States in 2015, according to the Tahirih Justice Center, a national nonprofit group that provides services to immigrant women and children.

Assemblywoman Amy Paulin, D-Westchester County, and Sen. Andrew Lanza, R-Staten Island, have proposed legislation to raise the marriage age. Paulin notes that adding to confusion on the issue is the fact that New York law allows minors to get married but does not allow them to get a divorce in their own name. Changes are needed.

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