Following the New Jersey Assembly’s passage Nov. 21 of a bill to prevent the civil union of minors, its author, Fraidy Reiss, told NJ Jewish News, “What a wonderful step for the state to take for girls and women.”
Reiss is founder of the Westfield-based nonprofit Unchained At Last, which helps women of different religions escape from arranged and forced marriages.
The Assembly bill was sponsored by Nancy F. Munoz (R-Dist. 21), Reed Gusciora (D-Dist. 15), Declan J. O’Scanlon Jr. (R-Dist. 13), Sheila Oliver (D-Dist. 34), Joseph Lagana (D-Dist. 38), Pamela Lampitt (D-Dist. 6), and Raj Mukherji (D-Dist. 33).
Reiss said she hopes it will pass in the NJ State Senate and will be signed into law early in 2017. Her interest in the issue comes out of her own experience as a teenage bride in the ultra-Orthodox community in Lakewood.
Married at 19, to a 22-year-old groom, she was a victim of domestic violence for 12 years. She had two daughters, but while she was with her husband, she saved money, enrolled in college, found work as an investigative reporter, and was ultimately able to leave her marriage. In the process, however, her family cut ties with her.
Between 1995 and 2014, 3,565 children were married in New Jersey, according to statistics from the NJ Department of Health. Most were aged 16 or 17 and married with parental consent, but some were between the ages of 13 and 15 and required a judge’s approval to marry.
Ninety-one percent of these children were married to adults. The numbers have been steadily declining in the state since 1995, when there were 355 child marriages; in 2014, there were just 40.
“There are still too many,” said Reiss. “The numbers will not go down to zero until legislation is passed” making the practice illegal. “I want to make sure no child is subjected to the human rights abuse that is child marriage.”
Child marriage is legal in all 50 states. There are laws in 10 states, however, that prohibit forced marriage. Legislation similar to that pending in New Jersey died in both New York and Maryland, where, Reiss said, she hopes it will be reintroduced. Massachusetts is considering legislation, and in Virginia, a law passed, but with an exception carved out for “emancipated minors,” those no longer considered to be under the care and control of parents. Reiss said she hopes bills will pass “in all 50 states to end child marriage,” she told NJJN in a phone conversation.
This isn’t Reiss’s first foray into crafting legislation. In 2014, her first bill was signed into law. It ensures that victims of domestic violence do not have to pay a fee to obtain their own police records, which generally must be presented in court to receive a restraining order.