SEA BRIGHT, NEW JERSEY — Brides posing for photos on a beach is nothing new. But a group of brides, dressed in traditional white gowns, posed recently on a New Jersey beach while wearing chains on their wrists and speaking from megaphones.
The group, Unchained At Last, was celebrating the passage of laws in Delaware and New Jersey that prohibited child marriage.
Unchained at Last is on a quest to stop underage and forced marriage in all 50 U.S. states. Its founder, Fraidy Reiss, a petite woman with a fiery streak, was 19 when her parents — whom she described as "ultra-Orthodox Jews," — forced her into a violent marriage where she had no reproductive or financial rights.
"I was required to have sex with my husband and was not allowed to use birth control," said Reiss. "I had my first child 11 months after my wedding."
Reiss said she was not allowed to have her own cash, credit card, bank account or job, "and, under Orthodox Jewish law, if my husband would have allowed me to work, any money I earned would go to him."
For eight years, Reiss secretly saved enough money ($40,000) to file for a divorce. She stashed it in the only place in her house where her husband would not look — "a box of Total [cereal] in the pantry closet," Reiss said. "He didn't like Total."
Someone else said 'I do' for her
Naila Amin, who was standing with Reiss on the beach and shares the goal of stopping underage marriage, learned from her friends at age 8 what her future would be.
"Your dad gave you away. Last night, you were stamped for Salim," her friend said of the prospective groom. (His name has been changed for this story.)
Amin was shocked. Salim was her first cousin and much older than she was. She was 13 when she was taken from New York to Pakistan for the religious ceremony. He was 26.
"My dad said 'I do' for me," Amin said.
The young newlywed soon realized her value. Salim wanted U.S. citizenship, and he had to get married to get it.
"My worth was my blue [American] passport," she said.
Amin said her husband raped her by day and beat her nightly. One night, while the young couple was living among his family, she disguised her identity and ran away. By age 17, she was divorced.
She now runs the Naila Amin Foundation in New York and wants to open a shelter for girls fleeing forced marriages.
'Showing of necessity'
U.S. laws on underage marriage differ from state to state. Forty-eight states allow those under 18 to marry, with varied requirements. Most require a parental signature. Several have no minimum age, but set conditions. Washington state, for example, allows marriage at any age "with judicial approval and showing of "necessity" — that is, pregnancy.
In May 2018, the Delaware state legislature passed the first law in the nation outlawing marriage under age 18. When Governor John Carney signed the bill, he told VOA, "Until this bill came up, I didn't even realize that was part of the law and there were abuses happening."
From 2000 to 2017, 213 children as young as 14 married in the state, according to Delaware Health and Social Services' Division of Public Health. Carney said he supported the law because there "ought to be a moral standard and I think we are setting that standard today."
The nation's second child marriage law was enacted in New Jersey a month later. New Jersey Assemblywoman Nancy Munoz sponsored the legislation to protect young people. She said residents under 18 "can't even get a contract with an attorney to get out of a marriage. They can't get an apartment before 18. They can't even buy a lottery ticket in New Jersey."
According to Unchained at Last, other states recently have passed legislation that would restrict young marriages, but none set the limit at 18.
Victims to advocates
The United Nations and the U.S. State Department calls marriage before age 18 an abuse of human rights. Yet the Tahirih Justice Center, a nongovernmental organization in Falls Church, Virginia, that works to protect immigrant women and girls fleeing gender-based violence and persecution, said more than 200,000 children in the U.S. were married between 2000 and 2015.
Reiss is continuing her mission this year as state legislatures debate various bills. She said she's seen too many cases in which current laws are used to cover up rape, as young girls are forced to marry their rapists. Reiss asks opponents of her objectives to give her one situation in which someone will be severely harmed by waiting to marry at age 18. She says no one can.
"I want to be known as the little woman who ended child marriage in America," she told VOA.