US state could become first to enact blanket ban on child marriage, activists say

NEW YORK - 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.

Related: Child marriage in Bangladesh

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NTP: Bangladesh youth marriages
MANIKGANJ, BANGLADESH - AUGUST 20: 15 year old Nasoin Akhter has her makeup done at a beauty parlour on the day of her wedding to a 32 year old man, August 20, 2015 in Manikganj, Bangladesh. In June of this year, Human Rights Watch released a damning report about child marriage in Bangladesh. The country has one of the highest rates of child marriage in the world, with 29% of girls marrying before the age of 15, and 65% of girls marrying before they turn 18. The detrimental effects of early marriage on a girl cannot be overstated. Most young brides drop out of school. Pregnant girls from 15-20 are twice as likely to die in childbirth than those 20 or older, while girls under 15 are at five times the risk. Research cites spousal age difference as a significant risk factor for violence and sexual abuse. Child marriage is attributed to both cultural tradition and poverty. Parents believe that it 'protects' girls from sexual assault and harassment. Larger dowries are not required for young girls, and economically, women's earnings are insignificant as compared to men's. (Photo by Allison Joyce/Getty Images)
MANIKGANJ, BANGLADESH - AUGUST 20: 32 year old Mohammad Hasamur Rahman stands on a bed above his new bride, 15 year old Nasoin Akhter, August 20, 2015 in Manikganj, Bangladesh. In June of this year, Human Rights Watch released a damning report about child marriage in Bangladesh. The country has one of the highest rates of child marriage in the world, with 29% of girls marrying before the age of 15, and 65% of girls marrying before they turn 18. The detrimental effects of early marriage on a girl cannot be overstated. Most young brides drop out of school. Pregnant girls from 15-20 are twice as likely to die in childbirth than those 20 or older, while girls under 15 are at five times the risk. Research cites spousal age difference as a significant risk factor for violence and sexual abuse. Child marriage is attributed to both cultural tradition and poverty. Parents believe that it 'protects' girls from sexual assault and harassment. Larger dowries are not required for young girls, and economically, women's earnings are insignificant as compared to men's. (Photo by Allison Joyce/Getty Images)
MANIKGANJ, BANGLADESH - AUGUST 20: A relative tries to drag 15 year old Nasoin Akhter onto a bed to pose for photographs on the day of her wedding to a 32 year old man, August 20, 2015 in Manikganj, Bangladesh. In June of this year, Human Rights Watch released a damning report about child marriage in Bangladesh. The country has one of the highest rates of child marriage in the world, with 29% of girls marrying before the age of 15, and 65% of girls marrying before they turn 18. The detrimental effects of early marriage on a girl cannot be overstated. Most young brides drop out of school. Pregnant girls from 15-20 are twice as likely to die in childbirth than those 20 or older, while girls under 15 are at five times the risk. Research cites spousal age difference as a significant risk factor for violence and sexual abuse. Child marriage is attributed to both cultural tradition and poverty. Parents believe that it 'protects' girls from sexual assault and harassment. Larger dowries are not required for young girls, and economically, women's earnings are insignificant as compared to men's. (Photo by Allison Joyce/Getty Images)
MANIKGANJ, BANGLADESH - AUGUST 20: 15 year old Nasoin Akhter has her wedding sari wrapped at a beauty parlour on the day of her wedding to a 32 year old man, August 20, 2015 in Manikganj, Bangladesh. In June of this year, Human Rights Watch released a damning report about child marriage in Bangladesh. The country has one of the highest rates of child marriage in the world, with 29% of girls marrying before the age of 15, and 65% of girls marrying before they turn 18. The detrimental effects of early marriage on a girl cannot be overstated. Most young brides drop out of school. Pregnant girls from 15-20 are twice as likely to die in childbirth than those 20 or older, while girls under 15 are at five times the risk. Research cites spousal age difference as a significant risk factor for violence and sexual abuse. Child marriage is attributed to both cultural tradition and poverty. Parents believe that it 'protects' girls from sexual assault and harassment. Larger dowries are not required for young girls, and economically, women's earnings are insignificant as compared to men's. (Photo by Allison Joyce/Getty Images)
MANIKGANJ, BANGLADESH - AUGUST 20: Wedding guests dance and celebrate on the day of the wedding of 15 year old Nasoin Akhter to a 32 year old man, August 20, 2015 in Manikganj, Bangladesh. In June of this year, Human Rights Watch released a damning report about child marriage in Bangladesh. The country has one of the highest rates of child marriage in the world, with 29% of girls marrying before the age of 15, and 65% of girls marrying before they turn 18. The detrimental effects of early marriage on a girl cannot be overstated. Most young brides drop out of school. Pregnant girls from 15-20 are twice as likely to die in childbirth than those 20 or older, while girls under 15 are at five times the risk. Research cites spousal age difference as a significant risk factor for violence and sexual abuse. Child marriage is attributed to both cultural tradition and poverty. Parents believe that it 'protects' girls from sexual assault and harassment. Larger dowries are not required for young girls, and economically, women's earnings are insignificant as compared to men's. (Photo by Allison Joyce/Getty Images)
MANIKGANJ, BANGLADESH - AUGUST 20: 15 year old Nasoin Akhter is bathed on the day of her wedding to a 32 year old man, August 20, 2015 in Manikganj, Bangladesh. In June of this year, Human Rights Watch released a damning report about child marriage in Bangladesh. The country has one of the highest rates of child marriage in the world, with 29% of girls marrying before the age of 15, and 65% of girls marrying before they turn 18. The detrimental effects of early marriage on a girl cannot be overstated. Most young brides drop out of school. Pregnant girls from 15-20 are twice as likely to die in childbirth than those 20 or older, while girls under 15 are at five times the risk. Research cites spousal age difference as a significant risk factor for violence and sexual abuse. Child marriage is attributed to both cultural tradition and poverty. Parents believe that it 'protects' girls from sexual assault and harassment. Larger dowries are not required for young girls, and economically, women's earnings are insignificant as compared to men's. (Photo by Allison Joyce/Getty Images)
MANIKGANJ, BANGLADESH - AUGUST 20: 15 year old Nasoin Akhter is bathed on the day of her wedding to a 32 year old man, August 20, 2015 in Manikganj, Bangladesh. In June of this year, Human Rights Watch released a damning report about child marriage in Bangladesh. The country has one of the highest rates of child marriage in the world, with 29% of girls marrying before the age of 15, and 65% of girls marrying before they turn 18. The detrimental effects of early marriage on a girl cannot be overstated. Most young brides drop out of school. Pregnant girls from 15-20 are twice as likely to die in childbirth than those 20 or older, while girls under 15 are at five times the risk. Research cites spousal age difference as a significant risk factor for violence and sexual abuse. Child marriage is attributed to both cultural tradition and poverty. Parents believe that it 'protects' girls from sexual assault and harassment. Larger dowries are not required for young girls, and economically, women's earnings are insignificant as compared to men's. (Photo by Allison Joyce/Getty Images)
MANIKGANJ, BANGLADESH - AUGUST 20: 15 year old Nasoin Akhter is bathed on the day of her wedding to a 32 year old man, August 20, 2015 in Manikganj, Bangladesh. In June of this year, Human Rights Watch released a damning report about child marriage in Bangladesh. The country has one of the highest rates of child marriage in the world, with 29% of girls marrying before the age of 15, and 65% of girls marrying before they turn 18. The detrimental effects of early marriage on a girl cannot be overstated. Most young brides drop out of school. Pregnant girls from 15-20 are twice as likely to die in childbirth than those 20 or older, while girls under 15 are at five times the risk. Research cites spousal age difference as a significant risk factor for violence and sexual abuse. Child marriage is attributed to both cultural tradition and poverty. Parents believe that it 'protects' girls from sexual assault and harassment. Larger dowries are not required for young girls, and economically, women's earnings are insignificant as compared to men's. (Photo by Allison Joyce/Getty Images)
MANIKGANJ, BANGLADESH - AUGUST 20: Gold wedding jewelry is laid out for 15 year old Nasoin Akhter on the day of her wedding to a 32 year old man, August 20, 2015 in Manikganj, Bangladesh. In June of this year, Human Rights Watch released a damning report about child marriage in Bangladesh. The country has one of the highest rates of child marriage in the world, with 29% of girls marrying before the age of 15, and 65% of girls marrying before they turn 18. The detrimental effects of early marriage on a girl cannot be overstated. Most young brides drop out of school. Pregnant girls from 15-20 are twice as likely to die in childbirth than those 20 or older, while girls under 15 are at five times the risk. Research cites spousal age difference as a significant risk factor for violence and sexual abuse. Child marriage is attributed to both cultural tradition and poverty. Parents believe that it 'protects' girls from sexual assault and harassment. Larger dowries are not required for young girls, and economically, women's earnings are insignificant as compared to men's. (Photo by Allison Joyce/Getty Images)
MANIKGANJ, BANGLADESH - AUGUST 20: 32 year old Mohammad Hasamur Rahman arrives to his wedding venue on the day that he will marry 15 year old Nasoin Akhter August 20, 2015 in Manikganj, Bangladesh. In June of this year, Human Rights Watch released a damning report about child marriage in Bangladesh. The country has one of the highest rates of child marriage in the world, with 29% of girls marrying before the age of 15, and 65% of girls marrying before they turn 18. The detrimental effects of early marriage on a girl cannot be overstated. Most young brides drop out of school. Pregnant girls from 15-20 are twice as likely to die in childbirth than those 20 or older, while girls under 15 are at five times the risk. Research cites spousal age difference as a significant risk factor for violence and sexual abuse. Child marriage is attributed to both cultural tradition and poverty. Parents believe that it 'protects' girls from sexual assault and harassment. Larger dowries are not required for young girls, and economically, women's earnings are insignificant as compared to men's. (Photo by Allison Joyce/Getty Images)
MANIKGANJ, BANGLADESH - AUGUST 20: 15 year old Nasoin Akhter sits with relatives while posing for photos on the day of her wedding to a 32 year old man, August 20, 2015 in Manikganj, Bangladesh. In June of this year, Human Rights Watch released a damning report about child marriage in Bangladesh. The country has one of the highest rates of child marriage in the world, with 29% of girls marrying before the age of 15, and 65% of girls marrying before they turn 18. The detrimental effects of early marriage on a girl cannot be overstated. Most young brides drop out of school. Pregnant girls from 15-20 are twice as likely to die in childbirth than those 20 or older, while girls under 15 are at five times the risk. Research cites spousal age difference as a significant risk factor for violence and sexual abuse. Child marriage is attributed to both cultural tradition and poverty. Parents believe that it 'protects' girls from sexual assault and harassment. Larger dowries are not required for young girls, and economically, women's earnings are insignificant as compared to men's. (Photo by Allison Joyce/Getty Images)
MANIKGANJ, BANGLADESH - AUGUST 20: 15 year old Nasoin Akhter poses for a photo at a beauty parlour on the day of her wedding to a 32 year old man, August 20, 2015 in Manikganj, Bangladesh. In June of this year, Human Rights Watch released a damning report about child marriage in Bangladesh. The country has one of the highest rates of child marriage in the world, with 29% of girls marrying before the age of 15, and 65% of girls marrying before they turn 18. The detrimental effects of early marriage on a girl cannot be overstated. Most young brides drop out of school. Pregnant girls from 15-20 are twice as likely to die in childbirth than those 20 or older, while girls under 15 are at five times the risk. Research cites spousal age difference as a significant risk factor for violence and sexual abuse. Child marriage is attributed to both cultural tradition and poverty. Parents believe that it 'protects' girls from sexual assault and harassment. Larger dowries are not required for young girls, and economically, women's earnings are insignificant as compared to men's. (Photo by Allison Joyce/Getty Images)
MANIKGANJ, BANGLADESH - AUGUST 20: 15 year old Nasoin Akhter stands in the doorway of a neighbors home on the day of her wedding to a 32 year old man, August 20, 2015 in Manikganj, Bangladesh. In June of this year, Human Rights Watch released a damning report about child marriage in Bangladesh. The country has one of the highest rates of child marriage in the world, with 29% of girls marrying before the age of 15, and 65% of girls marrying before they turn 18. The detrimental effects of early marriage on a girl cannot be overstated. Most young brides drop out of school. Pregnant girls from 15-20 are twice as likely to die in childbirth than those 20 or older, while girls under 15 are at five times the risk. Research cites spousal age difference as a significant risk factor for violence and sexual abuse. Child marriage is attributed to both cultural tradition and poverty. Parents believe that it 'protects' girls from sexual assault and harassment. Larger dowries are not required for young girls, and economically, women's earnings are insignificant as compared to men's. (Photo by Allison Joyce/Getty Images)
MANIKGANJ, BANGLADESH - AUGUST 20: 15 year old Nasoin Akhter looks out of a dressing room at a beauty parlour on the day of her wedding to a 32 year old man, August 20, 2015 in Manikganj, Bangladesh. In June of this year, Human Rights Watch released a damning report about child marriage in Bangladesh. The country has one of the highest rates of child marriage in the world, with 29% of girls marrying before the age of 15, and 65% of girls marrying before they turn 18. The detrimental effects of early marriage on a girl cannot be overstated. Most young brides drop out of school. Pregnant girls from 15-20 are twice as likely to die in childbirth than those 20 or older, while girls under 15 are at five times the risk. Research cites spousal age difference as a significant risk factor for violence and sexual abuse. Child marriage is attributed to both cultural tradition and poverty. Parents believe that it 'protects' girls from sexual assault and harassment. Larger dowries are not required for young girls, and economically, women's earnings are insignificant as compared to men's. (Photo by Allison Joyce/Getty Images)
MANIKGANJ, BANGLADESH - AUGUST 20: 32 year old Mohammad Hasamur Rahman poses for photographs with his new bride, 15 year old Nasoin Akhter, August 20, 2015 in Manikganj, Bangladesh. In June of this year, Human Rights Watch released a damning report about child marriage in Bangladesh. The country has one of the highest rates of child marriage in the world, with 29% of girls marrying before the age of 15, and 65% of girls marrying before they turn 18. The detrimental effects of early marriage on a girl cannot be overstated. Most young brides drop out of school. Pregnant girls from 15-20 are twice as likely to die in childbirth than those 20 or older, while girls under 15 are at five times the risk. Research cites spousal age difference as a significant risk factor for violence and sexual abuse. Child marriage is attributed to both cultural tradition and poverty. Parents believe that it 'protects' girls from sexual assault and harassment. Larger dowries are not required for young girls, and economically, women's earnings are insignificant as compared to men's. (Photo by Allison Joyce/Getty Images)
MANIKGANJ, BANGLADESH - AUGUST 19: 14 year old Mousammat Akhi Akhter poses in her home August 19, 2015 in Manikganj, Bangladesh. Last year, when she was only 13, Akhi got married a 27 year old man. She had finished 6th grade and wanted to wait until she was older to get married, but she says her parents felt social pressure to marry her young. In June of this year, Human Rights Watch released a damning report about child marriage in Bangladesh. The country has one of the highest rates of child marriage in the world, with 29% of girls marrying before the age of 15, and 65% of girls marrying before they turn 18. The detrimental effects of early marriage on a girl cannot be overstated. Most young brides drop out of school. Pregnant girls from 15-20 are twice as likely to die in childbirth than those 20 or older, while girls under 15 are at five times the risk. Research cites spousal age difference as a significant risk factor for violence and sexual abuse. Child marriage is attributed to both cultural tradition and poverty. Parents believe that it 'protects' girls from sexual assault and harassment. Larger dowries are not required for young girls, and economically, women's earnings are insignificant as compared to men's. (Photo by Allison Joyce/Getty Images)
MANIKGANJ, BANGLADESH - AUGUST 19: 27 year old Mohammad Sujon Mia stands for a photo beside his wife, 14 year old Mousammat Akhi Akhter in their home August 19, 2015 in Manikganj, Bangladesh. Last year, when she was only 13, Akhi got married a 27 year old man. She had finished 6th grade and wanted to wait until she was older to get married, but she says her parents felt social pressure to marry her young. In June of this year, Human Rights Watch released a damning report about child marriage in Bangladesh. The country has one of the highest rates of child marriage in the world, with 29% of girls marrying before the age of 15, and 65% of girls marrying before they turn 18. The detrimental effects of early marriage on a girl cannot be overstated. Most young brides drop out of school. Pregnant girls from 15-20 are twice as likely to die in childbirth than those 20 or older, while girls under 15 are at five times the risk. Research cites spousal age difference as a significant risk factor for violence and sexual abuse. Child marriage is attributed to both cultural tradition and poverty. Parents believe that it 'protects' girls from sexual assault and harassment. Larger dowries are not required for young girls, and economically, women's earnings are insignificant as compared to men's. (Photo by Allison Joyce/Getty Images)
MANIKGANJ, BANGLADESH - AUGUST 20: 15 year old Nasoin Akhter is led by relatives to a car that will take her to her new home on the day of her wedding to a 32 year old man, August 20, 2015 in Manikganj, Bangladesh. In June of this year, Human Rights Watch released a damning report about child marriage in Bangladesh. The country has one of the highest rates of child marriage in the world, with 29% of girls marrying before the age of 15, and 65% of girls marrying before they turn 18. The detrimental effects of early marriage on a girl cannot be overstated. Most young brides drop out of school. Pregnant girls from 15-20 are twice as likely to die in childbirth than those 20 or older, while girls under 15 are at five times the risk. Research cites spousal age difference as a significant risk factor for violence and sexual abuse. Child marriage is attributed to both cultural tradition and poverty. Parents believe that it 'protects' girls from sexual assault and harassment. Larger dowries are not required for young girls, and economically, women's earnings are insignificant as compared to men's. (Photo by Allison Joyce/Getty Images)
MANIKGANJ, BANGLADESH - AUGUST 19: 14 year old Shima Akhter stands on the front porch of her home August 19, 2015 in Manikganj, Bangladesh. Last year, when she was 13, Shima married an 18 year old man. In June of this year, Human Rights Watch released a damning report about child marriage in Bangladesh. The country has one of the highest rates of child marriage in the world, with 29% of girls marrying before the age of 15, and 65% of girls marrying before they turn 18. The detrimental effects of early marriage on a girl cannot be overstated. Most young brides drop out of school. Pregnant girls from 15-20 are twice as likely to die in childbirth than those 20 or older, while girls under 15 are at five times the risk. Research cites spousal age difference as a significant risk factor for violence and sexual abuse. Child marriage is attributed to both cultural tradition and poverty. Parents believe that it 'protects' girls from sexual assault and harassment. Larger dowries are not required for young girls, and economically, women's earnings are insignificant as compared to men's. (Photo by Allison Joyce/Getty Images)
MANIKGANJ, BANGLADESH - AUGUST 19: 14 year old Shima Akhter walks through a field near her home August 19, 2015 in Manikganj, Bangladesh. Last year, when she was 13, Shima married an 18 year old man. In June of this year, Human Rights Watch released a damning report about child marriage in Bangladesh. The country has one of the highest rates of child marriage in the world, with 29% of girls marrying before the age of 15, and 65% of girls marrying before they turn 18. The detrimental effects of early marriage on a girl cannot be overstated. Most young brides drop out of school. Pregnant girls from 15-20 are twice as likely to die in childbirth than those 20 or older, while girls under 15 are at five times the risk. Research cites spousal age difference as a significant risk factor for violence and sexual abuse. Child marriage is attributed to both cultural tradition and poverty. Parents believe that it 'protects' girls from sexual assault and harassment. Larger dowries are not required for young girls, and economically, women's earnings are insignificant as compared to men's. (Photo by Allison Joyce/Getty Images)
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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.

Thursday marks a deadline for the governor to sign it into law or veto it, 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.

Child marriage is associated with mental health problems, poverty and increased high school drop-out 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, said Fraidy Reiss, Unchained At Last's executive director.

Similar legislation has been introduced in 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. (Reporting by Sebastien Malo @sebastienmalo, Editing by Ellen Wulfhorst. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, property rights, climate change and resilience. Visit http://news.trust.org)

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