New York became the sixth state in the country on Thursday to ban marriages involving a minor, which disproportionately involve girls being married to adult men.

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo (D) signed into law a bill raising the age of consent to be married in the state to 18. The legislation will “further protect vulnerable children from exploitation,” he said in a statement. “Children should be allowed to live their childhood.”

Cuomo had enacted legislation in 2017 purporting to “end child marriage in New York,” a statement from the time said, by raising the age of consent to marry in the state from 14 to 18. But it allowed 17-year-olds to be married with parental and judicial consent, which advocates criticized as a loophole allowing parents to force minors into marriage.

Last month, Rhode Island Gov. Daniel McKee (D) signed legislation barring minors from being married. Minnesota, Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Delaware have enacted similar laws, as have the U.S. Virgin Islands and American Samoa.

The legality of child marriages varies widely across other states. In Wyoming, the minimum age of consent for marriage is 16, but a child of any age can be married with parental and judicial consent. In Virginia, the minimum age is 18 — but there is an exception for minors who have been legally emancipated.

Nearly 5,000 children were married in New York between 2000 and 2018, according to a study published in April by Unchained at Last, a nonprofit that advocates against child marriage in the United States.

Nationally over that period, nearly 300,000 children were legally married, the study found. Of that figure, 86 percent were girls, and most were married to adult men. The average age difference for marriage involving girls was four years, according to the study.

Child marriages have decreased significantly since the turn of the century, the study found: In 2000, at least 76,396 children were married. In 2018, the figure was 2,493.

Still, advocates, politicians and experts note that child marriages often involve forced marriage and can provide legal cover for what would otherwise be statutory rape.

The bill’s sponsor, New York state Sen. Julia Salazar (D), said in a statement that “regardless of maturity level, minors lack sufficient legal rights and autonomy that they need to protect them if they enter a marriage contract before becoming adults.”

Girls who are married before the age of 18 are more likely to be victims of domestic violence and less likely to stay in school, according to the United Nations, which has called child marriage a “human rights violation" and made ending the practice by 2030 one of its goals for sustainable development.

The coronavirus pandemic has worsened the issue, the United Nations said in March, noting that factors including economic shock and school closures have contributed.

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