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Marriage Amendment Bill in first reading to prevent forced underage marriages

By Sarah Harris

Underage couples would need court approval to marry under a private members' bill that aims to crack down on forced marriages.

National List MP Jo Hayes said she believes forced marriages between teenagers are "slowly creeping into New Zealand society" and that the problem exists primarily in Pacific and Asian communities, where parents can pressure a young girl into marrying an older man for financial security.

She said some young girls were treated like slaves once coerced into wedlock.

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Hayes said the bill would sort out which marriages were between consenting teenagers and which were forced.

"I think [the teenagers] do it for their parents' sake. I think it's hell on earth for some of them."

Hayes is sponsoring the Marriage (Court Consent to Marriage of Minors) Amendment Bill, which was drawn from the ballot last week for its first reading in Parliament.

The bill proposes that 16- and 17-year-olds who wish to marry must apply to the court and get the consent of a Family Court judge.

Now, the legal age to wed is 18, but 16- and 17-year-olds can marry with their parents' consent.

National MP Jo Hayes wants to change marriage law to prevent youth being pressured by prospective husbands or family to wed. Photo / supplied
National MP Jo Hayes wants to change marriage law to prevent youth being pressured by prospective husbands or family to wed. Photo / supplied

Teenage marriages were more common in the 1970s. In 1971, 285 boys and 2304 girls aged 16 and 17 were wed.

In the most recent data, for 2015, 12 boys and 36 girls were married aged 16 or 17. That was a slight increase on the previous year when 33 girls and nine boys were wed.

Hayes attended to a conference in Kathmandu last year, which discussed forced marriages. She said they were more likely in poverty-stricken countries but New Zealand was not immune.

"I saw how rampantly it ran through some of the countries. And how close to home that whole issue is becoming."

Labour's spokesman for Pacific Island Affairs, Su'a William Sio, said he had not heard of forced marriages in Pasifika communities.

"I'm not sure what she's aiming at. This is the 21st century. That just doesn't happen."

Indian community leader Jeet Suchdev said forced marriages were not a problem he had observed.

He said he did not think teenagers were mature enough to marry and believed most Indian parents in New Zealand would agree.

"Our tradition is to try and get a good education, after [that] they want to get married."

Upper Hutt woman Wendy McCarrison had a "shotgun wedding" when she was 16 and pregnant with twins. Photo / Supplied
Upper Hutt woman Wendy McCarrison had a "shotgun wedding" when she was 16 and pregnant with twins. Photo / Supplied

Upper Hutt woman Wendy McCarrison had a "shotgun wedding" when she was 16 and pregnant with twins. She says her mother told her there was no other option but to wed her 18-year-old boyfriend in 1977.

McCarrison miscarried the twins a week before the wedding but decided to go ahead with the ceremony.

"We were both in love, as you are when you're 16 and 18.

"I was the youngest bride by a country mile."

The teenagers moved into a flat together and they had two children by the time McCarrison was 19. They bought their first home three years later.

The marriage lasted seven years before they broke up amicably. Although there was pressure to get married, McCarrison said she would not have done it if she didn't want to.

Wendy McCarrison said marriage suits some teens, but not all. Photo / supplied
Wendy McCarrison said marriage suits some teens, but not all. Photo / supplied

McCarrison, now 56, supports the bill to protect vulnerable young people. She believes many girls were forced into wedlock because of unplanned pregnancies in her day.

"[The bill] is probably more relevant to today than what it was in the 1970s. If it's there to protect people from being forced into marriage then I absolutely support it."

Labour deputy leader Jacinda Ardern said Labour would support any way to combat forced marriage. But sometimes marriages happened outside the law.

"The marriage doesn't have legal standing but it has religious standing. It's the same consequences for these young women.

"You can put laws in place, but if people aren't going to conduct ceremonies within the law then it become a blunt instrument."

Ardern said the Family and Whanau Violence Legislation Bill, which is before the select committee, has proposed a new offence for the coercion of marriage with a sentence to imprisonment for up to five years. This would cover marriages not governed by New Zealand law or those not legally binding.

"We're very supportive of taking action.

"People are surprised to hear forced marriage is an issue in New Zealand, but it absolutely is."

The Green Party have not yet decided their position as the bill is yet to go to their caucus.

- NZ Herald

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