Last month in the U.S., New Jersey Governor Chris Christie conditionally vetoed bill A3091 which banned marriages for anyone under the age of 18 in the state with no exceptions. This hard-line bill would have been the first of its kind in the country.
Despite the bill’s bipartisan support, Christie opted to squander the remarkable opportunity to close child marriage legal loopholes by falling back on the ridiculous claim that to do so would impinge the religious freedom of New Jersey residents, according to an article in Politico. Christie appears to have been swayed by religious special-interest groups who raised concerns that more children would be born out of wedlock if marriage between 16 and 17-year-olds were banned.
Rightfully, the governor’s decision was met with extensive criticism from organizations like Too Young to Wed and the media, most notably from a column by Nicholas Kristof in The New York Times.
Some took it one step further. Our friends at the nonprofit Unchained at Last, which works to provide assistance to survivors of child marriage in the United States, organized a Chain-In, where protesters donned wedding dresses and bound their wrists with costume chains. They gathered in front of the New Jersey State House in Trenton on June 1 with speakers including Unchained At Last’s Executive Director, Fraidy Reiss, as well as advocates from Human Rights Watch and the National Organization for Women.
Unchained At Last has reported that forced marriage overwhelmingly takes place in closed religious groups where there are few resources (if any) for underage spouses to access. The cases also overwhelmingly involve a minor girl and a much older man.
“I have gotten too many phone calls from girls under 18 who are either facing pressure to get married or are trying to leave a marriage,” said Christina, the Director of Client Services at Unchained at Last and who wished to be identified only by her first name.
For girls wishing to leave a forced marriage, there are extremely limited resources in New Jersey and elsewhere in the U.S. Domestic violence shelters are often unable to take girls under 18, and minors who leave home are seen as runaways and are swiftly returned to the very situations they are trying to escape. Legal advice, healthcare and education can also become difficult to access, just as the Too Young to Wed team has repeatedly witnessed in our projects around the globe.
Perhaps the most disturbing aspect of this whole story is that it highlights the fact that there is no true child marriage ban in the United States. The U.S. Department of State has declared marriage under the age of 18 is a human rights abuse, but, shockingly, state laws across the country do not reflect this. Other bills seeking to ban forced and underage marriage have failed to pass in states like New Hampshire and New York*.
Gov. Christie leaves office in January 2018, but human rights abuses to which he turned a blind eye will continue until we move forward with meaningful change in place of legal loopholes and special interest kowtowing.
*Last week, a bill passed in the New York State Assembly and will now go to the Governor’s desk. Previous attempts were introduced but not put to a vote.