WESTFIELD, NJ — Fraidy Reiss, founder Westfield-based Unchained At Last, just got one step closer to her goal of ending forced child marriages. The bill that she wrote and advocated for that would bar individuals under the age of 18 from marrying or entering a civil union, sponsored by Assemblywomen Nancy F. Munoz (R-Union), recently received approval by the state general assembly.

Reiss survived an abusive arranged marriage herself set up by her Orthodox Jewish family that began when she was 19 years old and lasted for the next 12 years – when she was finally able to hatch an escape plan for herself and her two daughters. In 2011, Reiss formed Unchained At Last to help other women who face similar circumstances that she had to endure.

“New Jersey’s children are one step closer to no longer being victims of forced or arranged marriages,” Munoz said. “I am extremely happy for Fraidy Reiss, who advocated for this legislation. She has dedicated herself to this passage.”

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 Reiss has made it her life’s goal to end forced marriage.

“Child marriage is often forced marriage,” she said. “I added that to my life goals, as well, to eliminate child marriage in the US. This is not just only a problem in New Jersey.  Right now marriage in all states is legal before age 18 in all 50 states.”

 New Jersey State law currently permits anyone under the age of 18 to marry with a parent’s or guardian’s consent. A Superior Court Judge must approve if the person is under 16 years of age. This bill would prohibit marriage to all persons under the age of 18, regardless of parental or judicial consent.

In New Jersey alone between 1995 and 2012 nearly 3,500 children as young as 13 years old were married and almost all were girls married to adult men, according to Reiss. In addition, Reiss said that these types of marriages know no boundaries in terms of culture, religion, community and socioeconomics. 

Reiss’s route to freedom came when she decided to attend college against her husband’s disapproval. She enrolled at Rutgers and thrived there, going on to get a journalism degree. She went on to work as a reporter for the Asbury Park Press and later as private investigator in Queens.

Since July of 2015, Reiss’s full time job has been to run Unchained At Last. In addition to organizing programs to help women in forced or arranged marriages with pro bono legal assistance, career counseling, financial planning and psychotherapy, Reiss has used her reporting and investigative skills to write and advocate for legislation in the state of New Jersey and throughout the country.

Reiss said that she was able to get out of her marriage by “sheer will and determination,” and that she did not have the critical support group that she hopes to provide for other women.  Reaching out to Reiss and her organization is just the beginning of the journey towards safety and freedom for these women and, often times, girls who contact her.

With currently more than 500 volunteers, Reiss hopes to bring Unchained At Last, which is the only organization of its kind in the US, to every state and eventually pass legislation prohibiting underage marriage, as well, in each state.

Still for Reiss, it’s each individual that she will always value.

“I think there is probably nothing as healing as being able to turn your trauma into an opportunity to help others going through the same trauma,” she said.

A frequent contributor to TAPinto Westfield, Mike Cohen is the founder/director of Throwback Sports (a sports program for children of all abilities) and the sports editor of Education Update. He can be reached at throwbacksports@verizon.net