New York only just ended child marriage – but what about the rest of America?

·8 min read
Sara Tasneem shares her experiences of child marriage (Sara Tasneem)
Sara Tasneem shares her experiences of child marriage (Sara Tasneem)

A small group of women dressed in wedding gowns stood outside Governor Andrew Cuomo’s office on Wednesday and cried “arms chained, mouths taped”.

The demonstration was both a celebration and a warning. New York recently became the sixth US state to pass a bill banning all marriage before the age of 18 with no exceptions, however, as activists readily point out, there are still 44 states left to go.

In front of them stood New York Republican Mayoral nominee Curtis Sliwa, who was there to deliver a letter demanding Mr Cuomo resign. An Attorney General’s investigation concluded this week that Mr Cuomo had sexually harassed multiple women. The governor maintains he did nothing wrong and has vehemently refused to give up his position.

Ahead of his speech, members of Mr Sliwa’s team made comments about the child bride protesters, saying they would have to “take off their veils if they want to be in the shot”. When we asked them about the issue of child marriage, they said that was not what they were there for. One staffer commented: “I have the opposite problem, I’m too old to get married.” When Mr Sliwa arrived to give his speech he shook hands with the child marriage protesters, before proceeding to give a damning critique of both Andrew Cuomo and his CNN-host brother Chris Cuomo.

According to a study by Unchained at Last, nearly 300,000 minors were legally married in the US between 2000 and 2018. Some were as young as 10. The study also found that 60,000 marriages since 2000 occurred at an age difference that would be considered a sex crime. In New York alone, approximately 4,890 children as young as 14 were married between 2000 and 2018.

Fraidy Reiss, a survivor of forced marriage and founder of Unchained at Last, said: “We are here to celebrate that New York just ended child marriage, but we are also here to protest that 44 states still allow this human rights abuse to happen.”

Fraidy Reiss from Unchained at Last, along with Senator Julia Salazar, Naila Amin and other activists (The Independent)
Fraidy Reiss from Unchained at Last, along with Senator Julia Salazar, Naila Amin and other activists (The Independent)

Also known as Naila’s Law, Governor Cuomo recently signed S3086, the bill to end child marriage in New York, which will ban all marriages for those under the age of 18. The bill’s namesake, Naila Amin, was engaged at the age of eight. When she was 15 she was moved from New York to Pakistan and forced to marry her 28-year-old cousin.

“At the age of eight I found out I was engaged to my first cousin,” Ms Amin said. Although officially married in Pakistan at 15, Ms Amin says the US signed off on the paperwork to allow her to travel and marry, as, at the time, the legal age for marriage in the state was 14. “I’m still reeling from all of this but now I know that I can heal because the state that ruined my life has ended child marriage.”

The six states that have banned child marriage with no exception are New Jersey, Delaware, Pennsylvania, Minnesota, Rhode Island and now New York. The legislation across the remaining states varies. Nine have no age floor, and five have exceptions that can allow young minors to marry if they are pregnant. There are other gendered rules, such as in Mississippi, where girls can be married at a younger age than boys .

New York State Senator Julia Salazar said: “It is shameful that New York is only the sixth state in the country to truly and fully ban child marriage. Child marriage is not about our opinions of who is mature enough to get married.”

Sara Tasneem was a freshman in high school dreaming of going to law school when her life changed forever. After her divorced parents found out that she was dating when she was 15, she was made to leave her home of Colorado and live in California with her father, who she says was heavily involved in a cult.

“As soon as I got off the plane my dad sat me down and told me that sex outside of marriage is against the religion and that I would go to hell, he would go to hell, everyone in the family would,” she says.

That same night, her father took her to an event hosted by the organisation and she was introduced to a 28-year-old man. That same night, there was a spiritual ceremony marrying her to this man.

“When I look back I think I should’ve run away, or called my mom, all those what ifs, but being in the moment as a child you think this is what I’m supposed to do and this is my chance to finally be a good person in my dad’s eyes. And it happened so quickly I barely had time to question it,” she says.

Sara Tasneem at age 15 (Sara Tasneem)
Sara Tasneem at age 15 (Sara Tasneem)

“I remember on the way to the ceremony asking my parents where I was going to sleep that night and neither one would answer. That’s when I felt that something was really wrong and that night changed my entire life. I went from being a teenager with dreams and goals to having my whole life ripped away from me.”

Several months went by, during which she did not return to school and was not allowed to call her mother apart from when her “abusers coached” her through what to say. She was six months pregnant when her ex-husband took her to Reno, Nevada.

“During that trip we went through a drive-through chapel and were legally married in Nevada, which at the time only required a permission slip signed by one parent for an underage girl to get married. I was 16 years old and pregnant, that should’ve been evidence of statutory rape.”

Ms Tasneem, who years later got divorced after having two children, has been advocating for a blanket rule of marriage at 18 with no exceptions. She warns that otherwise abusers can “shop around states” and work around “loopholes”.

A large percentage of child marriages in the US are girls aged 16 or 17. Casey Carter Swegman, from the Tahirih Justice Center, says: “There’s a huge difference between 17 and 18.” She explains that in most states 18 is the age of maturity, at which point a person has the legal rights of an adult, be that going to a domestic violence shelter, seeking legal advice for a divorce or protection order, making medical decisions and more. In the numerous instances where a child marries an adult, “you have a power imbalance no matter what the nature of that relationship might be”.

“There is no harm in delaying marriage,” she adds.

She says if two 17 year olds are in love and want to get married, “all we are asking is wait on behalf of those who are not given a choice”.

She also explains that the pressure of that marriage can come at an even younger age than the year of the actual wedding. “That grooming, coercion and pressure is happening sometimes to 10 year olds.” In her advocacy experience, Ms Carter Swegman says cases are often an adult man marrying a girl, with age gaps on rare – but very real – occasions of 20, 30, or even 40 years.

In the majority of states, a minor could still be married to someone with whom sex outside of marriage would be a crime, a study by the Tahiri Justice Center found. It also found that marriage can provide a statutory defence or exception to prosecution for statutory rape or other sex offences in at least 40 states and the District of Columbia. “The fact that child marriage is sometimes used to legitimise the rape of children is especially horrifying,” Antonia Kirkland from Equality Now says. “Geography should not dictate whether your rights are protected or not.”

As Ms Tasneem says of her experiences, “The marriage certificate was a get out of jail free card for him that allowed him to have no legal ramifications for raping a 15 year old.”

Although rates of child marriage are declining year on year, Unchained at Last says this number “will not reach zero without legislative intervention”. One of the biggest hurdles campaigners say they face is people speaking to their personal experiences of marrying under the age of 18. “Some folks often point to what they believe are ‘successful child marriages’ in their own family; maybe their parents, grandparents, maybe even themselves, married under age 18 and ‘everything worked out,’” Ms Carter Swegmen says.

“‘Successful child marriages’ however you define them are the exception and not the rule ... changing personal beliefs, especially when it is deeply personal to the legislator is a long road and a hard conversation to have.”

When Ms Tasneem heard about the legislation change in New York she cried tears of joy.

At the Manhattan demonstration, someone from the crowd asked the protesters “where are you going next?”

The women called back in unison, with determined faces, “Massachusetts!”

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