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For decades, the UK government was steeped in hypocrisy regarding child marriage. Despite condemning it on international shores, it was “thriving” in the United Kingdom as a result of outdated and deeply damaging laws.
Campaigners fought for five years to bring an end to child marriage in the UK, resulting in the Marriage and Civil Partnership (Minimum Age) Bill being first introduced in October 2020. Three years later, after the Bill passed and received Royal Assent, it came into force Monday, 27 February 2023.
But why did it take so long to close the loophole? Will the legislation have unintended consequences, and will this piece of legislation usher in further reform to marriage laws globally?
Child marriage has been a scourge in the United Kingdom for years, condemning hundreds of British children to lives of misery and abuse each year. Prior to the law change, those aged 16 were permitted to marry with “parental consent”, while in Scotland, no parental consent is required at all. Many campaigners argued that the former was often more a case of “parental coercion.” Further, it was only in 2014 that forced marriage became a criminal offence, under the Anti-social Behaviour, Crime, and Policing Act 2014 (“the Act 2014”).
While official figures have reportedly fallen over the years, Karma Nirvana, a member of the Girls Not Brides coalition, assisted 177 children at risk of forced marriage via helpline between 2020 and 2022 alone. The true figure is expected to be much higher.
Pauline Latham, Conservative MP, spearheaded the law with a Private Member’s Bill, alongside Labour MP Sarah Campion, a coalition of lawyers, organisations from the Safeguard Futures: Ban Child Marriage campaign, and child marriage survivor and campaigner Payzee Mahmod.
The Marriage and Civil Partnership (Minimum Age) Act was passed in 2022, and came into effect last month. Under the legislation, it is now a crime to arrange for children to marry under any circumstances; regardless of whether or not the marriage is religious or legally recognised. It looks to safeguard children against child, early, and forced marriage (CEFM) and protect their futures. Under the new legislation, those found guilty of arranging child marriages face sentences of up to seven years in prison. That said, with marriage considered a devolved matter, the new legislation does not apply in either Scotland or Northern Ireland.
Prior to the introduction of the legislation, the government’s legislation Impact Assessment explored the dangerous implications of non-legally binding marriages for under-18s. It outlined that while non-legally binding marriages don’t receive the legal protections of a valid marriage, they’re also more likely to involve violence and abuse, and can involve those under the age of 16. The Assessment highlighted shocking figures from the Forced Marriage Unit from 2020, which showed that out of the potential victims of forced marriage it helped, 17% were aged under 16.
Back in 2022, speaking about the legislation being passed, Mahmod, whose sister was murdered in a so-called ‘honour-killing’ after she left the marriage she was forced into as a child, expressed that she was “ecstatic” at the news but, equally, said it was “about time.” Further, she outlined: “This is something that could have really protected me and my sister and all the children that have been going through this harmful practice.” When the law came into action in February Mahmod said that it was “probably one of the most important days of [her] life.”
Meanwhile, Natasha Rattu, Director of Karma Nirvana (a member of the Girls Not Brides Coalition), called the legislation change “a huge victory” for survivors. “It is a huge leap forward to tackling this usually hidden abuse and will provide a greater degree of protection to those at risk,” Rattu said. Adding: “Last year, the national Honour Based Abuse helpline supported 64 cases of child marriage, representing only a small picture of a much bigger problem. We hope that the new law will help to increase identification and reporting, affording greater protection to children at risk.”
Likewise, the Children’s Commissioner welcomed the change, and outlined that the legislation is something that they had long called for. “This has largely been informed by my own experiences as a teacher and a headteacher, where I witnessed young girls being taken out of school and married against their will. They should have had the chance to go on to achieve an education, but instead they were left with little choice about their future, and at risk of serious abuse within their marriage.”
While considered a big step in the right direction, the Act isn’t without its criticisms. As highlighted at a 2021 Public Policy Exchange event, there are some risks associated with the legislation, for example, criminalisation could prevent victims from speaking out, in order to protect their parents from imprisonment. “While criminal sanctions may send a strong message it risks scaring others and pushing the issue further underground,” the event outlined.
It has also been argued that what is needed is greater prevention work to educate perpetrators of CEFM. Further, some have pointed to the lack of consultation with interested parties. The Roma Support Group, for example, highlighted the potential consequences of this: “It is the immediacy of the criminalisation without a period of consultation and education that we fear could lead to harmful consequences.” These consequences include community alienation, withdrawal from communal engagement, and subsequently, an inability by enforcement authorities to identify child marriage risk and intervene.
The importance of prevention work was highlighted by think-tank Demos back in 2012. It outlined that criminalisation alone is insufficient and that international work shows that the long-term eradication of forced marriage will be achieved through “holistic and proactive interventions” designed not simply to identify and protect specific victims, but to “create spaces for discussion within the communities where forced marriage takes place.” “This means involving men, boys and the broader community in recognising both the utilitarian disadvantages that spring from the practice of forced marriage – negative impacts on the health, educational attainment and economic status of young people forced into marriage – and the real moral harm – the violations of human dignity and human rights – that the practice causes to individuals and families,” it said.
There are many who argue that the government didn’t act fast enough to end child marriage, with years of government inaction despite mounting pressure from charities and campaigners. The law pre-2022 was far from robust, and meant that thousands were forced into child marriage. The burden of proof lay with the victim, who was previously required to provide proof of coercion or control, which, as outlined by Mountford Chambers, meant few victims spoke out against their families, out of fear of ostracism and because “members of these communities, their familial ties, standing and communal reputation are paramount.”
This piece of legislation, on paper, is a great stride towards the elimination of child marriage, although it has undoubtedly failed to consider the nuance and unintended consequences of such legislation on child protection. That said, this step moves the country in alignment with its international commitments, and helps to eradicate the country’s hypocrisy on the issue; a hypocrisy the some diplomats admitted was preventing them from pushing forward reform in places such as Bangladesh and Nepal. The former even re-legalised child marriage in 2016, citing the legality of child marriage in the UK as justification.
It is true, that across the globe, the movement to end child marriage is picking up pace, but there is still a long way to go to ensure that children’s lives, safety and education are protected. Across the globe, over 650 million women alive today were married as children, and each year, at least 12 million girls are married before they are 18.
In the US, for example, shockingly, only seven states have banned underage marriages, with no exception. It is a pervasive issue in the country, with a 2021 landmark study by Unchained at Last unveiling that an estimated three hundred thousand children were married in the United States between 2000 and 2018.
Further, research shows that climate change and other environmental and humanitarian crises are only increasing the rates of child marriage. For example, Save The Children found that rates of child marriage have increased upwards of 20 percent, for girls living in conflict.
In a recent piece for Politics, Pauline Latham MP, Anne Quesney, Senior Women’s Rights Advocacy Adviser, ActionAid UK, and Natasha Rattu, Executive Director at Karma Nirvana, argued that the UK is now in a “stronger position” to advocate for ending child marriage on an international level. And, with just seven years left to meet the UN’s target of ending child marriage by 2030, efforts must continue domestically and abroad to end child marriage for good.
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