Before NJTV News was given the address of the Unchained at Last office, we had to sign a confidentiality agreement to ensure we would not disclose the location. Executive director Fraidy Reiss says that’s because of the level of danger some of their clients face. The organization helps women and girls in the United States escape forced marriages.
“There are different ways that parents will force their child to marry, sometimes it’s actually at gunpoint which is what people think of as a forced marriage, but in can involve threats of violence, actual violence, telling a girl you’re not leaving the house again until you marry, or we’ve seen mothers tell their daughters, if you don’t marry this guy I’m going to kill myself,” said Reiss.
Reiss says her organization estimates about 248,000 children were married in the United States in the span of a decade. The two main reasons they see a parent force a child to marry is if the child is pregnant or because of immigration purposes.
“The United States government does not specify a minimum age to petition for a foreign spouse or fiancé or to be the beneficiary of a spouse or fiancé visa, so we see parents trafficking their daughters for their citizenship,” Reiss said.
New Jersey law currently allows 16 and 17-year-olds to marry with parental consent, and allows children under 16 to marry with parental and judicial consent. But Assemblywoman Nancy Munoz sponsored a bill to change the law so someone can only get married if you are 18 or older.
“They can’t even get a divorce in many cases if they want to because they can’t legally contract with a lawyer,” said Assemblywoman Nancy Munoz.
“If they leave home, they’re considered runaways. We could be charged criminally for helping them leave. Domestic violence shelters won’t take them in,” Reiss said. “In almost all the cases these girls when they learn about the limited options, they end up trying to kill themselves.”
Last year, Gov. Chris Christie conditionally vetoed the bill saying, “An exclusion without exception would violate the cultures and traditions of some communities in New Jersey based on religious traditions,” and “… it is disingenuous to hold that a 16 year old may never consent to marriage, although New Jersey law permits the very same 16 year old to consent to sex or obtain an abortion without so much as parental knowledge, let alone consent.” He recommended the bill be amended to allow 16 and 17-year-olds to marry with judicial approval.
The executive director of New Jersey Right to Life, Marie Tasy, agrees.
“What we’re asking for is a very reasonable common sense amendment to the bill,” said Tasy
She says it’s not a good idea to have a one size fits all approach to any legislation.
“You have a young guy who’s going into the military, he might be 18 years old. He might have gotten his girlfriend who is 17 years old, 16 years old, pregnant. He’s going off to war. She won’t have any health insurance if she’s not allowed to marry him,” Tasy argued. “The proponents of the bill paint a dire picture of girls being forced into marriage, being abused, and that it’s going to ruin their lives, and while that might be true of some, it’s not true of all.”
But Reiss says she can tell you firsthand it’s happening because it happened to her when she was forced to marry at 19 years old.
“I was trapped in my abusive marriage for 12 years, and when I finally managed to escape, my family punished me by shunning me. They still consider me dead 13 years later,” Reiss said.
She’s dedicated her life to make sure other children don’t have to go through the same. Delaware just became the first state to eliminate child marriage. Reiss says it’s a big victory for her organization, and she hopes it inspires New Jersey to do the same.