Germany's cabinet Wednesday moved to ban child marriages after the recent mass refugee influx brought in many couples where one or both partners were aged under 18.
The new law, set to receive parliamentary approval by July, is seen as a protective move especially for girls by annulling foreign marriages involving minors.
It will allow youth welfare workers to take into care underaged girls even if they were legally married abroad and, if deemed necessary, separate them from their husbands.
"Children do not belong in the marriage registry office or the wedding hall," said Justice Minister Heiko Maas.
"We must not tolerate any marriages that harm minors in their development."
"The underaged must be protected as much as possible," he added, stressing that no minor must suffer restrictions on their asylum or residential status as a result of the change.
The age of consent for all marriages in Germany will be raised from 16 to 18 years. Currently in some cases an 18-year-old is allowed to marry a 16-year-old.
Foreign marriages involving spouses under 16 will be considered invalid, and those involving 16 or 17-year-olds can be annulled by family courts.
Rare exceptions are possible, for example when one of the spouses suffers from a serious illness -- but only if the couple are now both adults and both want to stay married.
The draft law would also punish with a fine any attempts to marry minors in traditional or religious rather than state ceremonies.
- 'Fundamental rights' -
There were 1,475 married minors registered in Germany last July -- 361 of them aged under 14 -- according to the latest figures released after a parliamentary request.
Of these 1,152 were girls, said the interior ministry.
The largest group, 664 children, came from Syria followed by 157 from Afghanistan, 100 from Iraq, and 65 from Bulgaria.
The conservative daily Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung welcomed the bill, saying that "archaic practises that harm women and children have no place" in Germany.
The aim was not to "paternalistically spread one's values or disrespect foreign cultures", but to enforce "fundamental and, in principle, globally recognised human rights".
The non-profit German Children's Aid Foundation said it generally welcomed the new draft law as a sign of "progress" but said courts should have latitude in some tricky cases where one spouse is aged 16 or 17.
These could involve underage couples that have their own children, who could then be considered born out of wedlock and lose certain entitlements and inheritance rights, warned the group's head, Thomas Krueger.
In such cases, recognising a marriage involving one 16 or 17-year-old "can be acceptable, for example, if the relationship is proven to be emotionally stable and there is no evidence of compulsion," he said in a statement.
"The opinion of the minor is also decisive and must absolutely be taken into account."