By Ellen Wulfhorst
NEW YORK, June 20 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - New York state moved to end child marriages on Tuesday, raising the legal age to 18 from 14 to tackle the issue of underage marriage that is permissible across the United States.
Previously children as young as 14 could get married with parental permission and consent of a judge in the state that stretches from New York City north to Canada and west to the Great Lakes.
The new law, signed by the governor of New York Andrew Cuomo, still allows for marriage at the age of 17 with parental and judicial permission.
In the United States, some 170,000 children were wed between 2000 and 2010 in 38 of the 50 states where data was available, according to anti-child marriage group Unchained at Last.
In New York state, home to 19 million people, more than 3,800 children were married in that time period.
"This is a major step forward in our efforts to protect children and prevent forced marriages," Cuomo, a Democrat, said in a statement.
He added that the new state law will "provide minors with the rights and protections that they deserve and ensure that women are empowered to have control over their own lives."
Studies show child marriage is linked to poverty and school drop-out rates in the United States, with underage girls who marry 50 percent more likely to drop out of high school, according to research cited by the governor's office.
Child brides are 31 percent more likely to live in poverty when they are older and three times more likely to be victims of domestic abuse than women who get married later, it said.
The new law came after the state of Virginia last year passed a law limiting child marriage as did the state of Texas last week. Similar legislation is under consideration in a handful of other U.S. states.
For although 18 is the minimum age for marriage in most of the United States, many states have legal loopholes allowing children to wed.
In most states, for example, 16- and 17-year-olds can marry with parental permission, and some states allow children to marry if one is pregnant or just given birth, according to the Pew Research Center.
In New Jersey, Republican Governor Chris Christie recently declined to sign into law a measure to make it the first U.S. state to ban any marriage of children under age 18, saying it would conflict with religious customs.
Globally, 15 million girls are married each year before the age of 18, according to Girls Not Brides, a global partnership opposed to child marriage.
Judy Harris Kluger, executive director of Sanctuary for Families, said New York state had taken an important step forward to "end a human rights violation."
"Sanctuary for Families has seen firsthand that young girls who are forced to marry are more likely to suffer domestic violence and are much less likely to complete their education," she said in a statement.
(Reporting by Ellen Wulfhorst, Editing by Belinda Goldsmith; 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)