(Updates to show 170,000 children reflects 38 states that provided data in 3rd graf and add nationwide estimate in 4th graf)
By Sebastien Malo
NEW YORK, May 9 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - 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 in 38 states where data was available.
Nationwide, the number could be as high as 248,000 children, according to Unchained At Last, a nonprofit that opposes arranged and forced marriages.
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.
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.
"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)