Concern that 16- and 17-year-olds are being forced to marry into often-abusive relationships has prompted an MP to draft a bill which would require minors to declare their consent in court.
National List MP Jackie Blue wants to change marriage law to prevent people younger than 18 years old being pressured by prospective husbands or their family to wed.
Forced marriages were difficult for police and social services to detect and were often associated with physical, financial or psychological abuse. There was also concern that under-age girls were being pressured to marry in New Zealand.
At present, the marriage age is 18 but 16- and 17-year-olds can marry with their parents' consent.
Dr Blue's private members' bill would make it illegal for 16- and 17- year-olds to wed without first formalising their consent before a Family Court Judge.
"It's hoping in those two years [between 16 and 18] girls will get some more support to withstand the pressure applied to them so they can make her own decisions," Dr Blue said.
About 80 minors were married a year in New Zealand, most of them women.
Dr Blue emphasised that forced marriage was a separate issue from arranged marriage, and her bill would not affect ethnic practices.
"We're not talking about arranged marriages - that is a traditional arrangement, the whole family is involved including the young girl or young man and right at the last minute that person can veto it if they're not happy. It's a completely different issue."
Shakti, which runs four refuges for Asian, African and Middle Eastern women in Auckland and Wellington, received around 600 calls to its crisis line a month. One of the organisation's senior counsellors, Shila Nair, said many of these calls related to forced marriage, but also under-age marriage, dowry abuse and threats of honour killing.
She felt Dr Blue's bill would be a step in the right direction but far greater legislative protection and intervention from government agencies was needed.
Labour Party women's affairs spokeswoman Sue Moroney said her party would support the bill if it made a real difference to stopping forced marriages. But she was disappointed that the problem had been left to the lottery of the private members' ballot instead of being introduced as Government legislation.
The bill was a response to a petition tabled in Parliament by women's rights worker Jane Prichard and 46 others in 2009. Ms Prichard hoped that the legislation, if pulled from the ballot, would be a stepping stone to changing the marriage age to 18.
Shakti was compiling data from its crisis call centre on how many complaints were made each month by women feeling pressured to marry.
Now Illegal to marry if under 16. Sixteen and 17-year-olds must have parental consent.
Proposed Sixteen and 17-year-olds must declare consent before the Family Court to get a marriage licence.
80 minors married a year in New Zealand.
80% of them are women.By Isaac Davison @Isaac_Davison Email Isaac