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New Jersey Could Be First in US to Ban Child Marriages, Activists Say

FILE - In this image taken from video, Fraidy Reiss, center, founder and executive director of Unchained at Last, a nonprofit organization that seeks to end child marriages, demonstrates in chains at the State Capitol in Albany, N.Y., Feb. 14, 2017. New York is one of seven states in which legislation similar to New Jersey's effort to ban child marriage has been introduced.

A measure to ban child marriage could become law this week in New Jersey, which would become the first of the 50 states in America to outlaw the practice without exception, activists say.

Viewed as the strongest such bill to be considered in the United States, it would prohibit any marriage of children under age 18.

Activists say the practice of underage marriage is rampant in the United States, where about 170,000 children were wed between 2000 and 2010. Most are underage girls married to older men.

While age 18 is the minimum for marriage in most of the United States, states have legal loopholes such as parental consent that allow children to marry, said Unchained At Last, a nonprofit that opposes arranged and forced marriages.

This measure, after passing both legislative houses in New Jersey, awaits the signature of Republican Governor Chris Christie. The governor must sign the bill into law or veto it by Thursday, according to Unchained At Last. If he takes no action, the bill automatically becomes law.

Christie, a strong supporter of President Donald Trump, has given no indication as to his stance on the bill, a spokesman said.

N.J. Assemblywoman Nancy Munoz, the bill's main sponsor, said she championed the legislation after learning about the long-lasting adverse effects of child marriage.

Mental health, poverty issues

Child marriage is associated with mental health problems, poverty and increased high school dropout rates, various studies have shown.

"This is really protecting youngsters, minors, from being put in a situation that could harm them," Munoz told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

If enacted, the law would be the nation's first to outlaw child marriage without exceptions, she said.

The bill has prompted seven other states to follow suit with similar legislation, said Fraidy Reiss, Unchained At Last's executive director. Those states are California, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Missouri, New York, Pennsylvania and Texas.

"Legislators are still just shocked that this is happening here," Reiss told the foundation. "Once one state takes that step and says, 'We're ending child marriage, period' ... it makes it so much easier for legislators in other states to say, 'Oh, yes, we should do that, too.' "

Last year, Virginia adopted a law against child marriage viewed as landmark, although it makes exceptions for certain 16- and 17-year-old children.