After hearing of a distraught school girl forced to marry by her parents, National MP Jackie Blue knew she couldn't stand by and do nothing.
The 100 teenagers – most of them school girls – who marry each year in New Zealand would require a court's permission to walk down the aisle under Dr Blue's proposed amendment to the Marriage Act.
Marriage under the age of 16 is illegal in New Zealand, but 16 and 17-year-olds can marry with parental consent.
More than 1000 teenagers gained consent to marry over the past decade, according to Statistics New Zealand.
Four out of five of those were female.
Dr Blue said only a small number of teenage nuptials would be marriages forced upon girls for cultural reasons.
"The majority are probably quite legitimate, but the majority of those minors are young girls. I can't not do anything. If it saves one young girl it's going to be worth it."
No data existed on how many people have been forced to marry as affected women were often hidden from the glare of social services.
But while researching the issue Dr Blue heard of a recent incident in which a school girl approached a social worker after being forced into an engagement.
Dr Blue would not release the name of the school in order to protect the girl's identity.
By forcing teenagers to seek the court's permission to marry, Dr Blue said it would take parental coercion out of the equation.
"It's not going to stop people from dragging their sons and daughters off shore to get married. We can't stop that, but it's another hurdle."
The Bill has not been pulled from the Member's ballot, but Dr Blue said politicians on both sides had signalled support for the law change.
In Australia teenagers must already seek a court's permission to marry.
Some countries take an even harder line. British law makers plan to criminalise forced marriage, meaning parents who coerce their children down the aisle may face prison time.
The New Zealand Government agreed to review the rules in January, but ruled out legislation on the basis it was unlikely to stop the cultural practice.
The Government's lack of action came under fire from both women's and ethnic lobby groups at the time.
Unicef New Zealand was one of the organisations calling for legislation to be introduced in New Zealand to prevent forced and child marriages here.
Unicef national advocacy manager Barbara Lambourn agreed the rules had to be tightened up to avoid forced marriage.
Although she had heard reports of forced marriage, no one knew the full extent of the issue.
"We don't know what level of coercion is taking place. We suspect this is possibly a bigger problem than what is recognised."
The practice of forced marriage was widespread in countries such as Afghanistan, Malawi and Pakistan.
About 13.5 million girls every year were married before the age of 18, according to the United Nations Population Fund.
The UN recently warned the number of girl child marriages would increase dramatically over the next decade.
Marriage Act - up for review
The Marriage Act is already up for debate in Parliament.
Labour MP Jacinda Ardern's Care of Children Law Reform Bill was chosen from the member's ballot in August. Same sex couples would be able to adopt under proposed changes.
Parliament is also considering a bill by fellow Labour MP Louisa Wall to legalise gay marriage.
- © Fairfax NZ News
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