UNICEF, the humanitarian aid organisation, defines child marriage as any formal or informal marriage or union between a child under the age of 18 and an adult or another child. Yet, in the UK, marriage at the age of 16 is legal if parental consent is acquired. Meanwhile, in Scotland, no parental consent is required.
Many campaigners and women’s organisations believe that through preserving this outdated law, the government is failing Britain’s children. Many have also highlighted the UK government’s hypocrisy, as it professes to condemn child marriage on the international stage but fails to tackle the issue on its own soil. The Conservative government even shot down a bill that would have eradicated child marriage much sooner.
Now, Pauline Latham MP, co-sponsor Sarah Champion MP and ten others are seeking to bring an end to child marriage in the UK once and for all with a new bill, with the support of Girls Not Brides UK.
Under Section 3 of the Marriage Act 1949, although the official legal age for marriage is 18, children under the age of 18 can also enter marriage. Across England, Wales and Northern Ireland, children as young as 16 can marry with parental consent. Meanwhile, marriage under the age 16, while not legally recognised, is not actually criminalised.
The most recent statistics on child marriages released by the Office for National Statistics (ONS), show that marriages of 16 and 17-year-olds are relatively low, with only 43 teenage boys and 140 teenage girls marrying with parental consent in 2017. However, this doesn’t account for religious and customary child marriages, which the current legal framework does not outlaw. This leaves children without sufficient legal protection and safeguarding and can result in forced child marriages.
Unfortunately, according to a report by The Guardian, data shows that many children are being subjected to this horrific fate in the UK. In the last two years, there were a total of 2,377 calls to the UK’s national forced marriage helpline, 66% of which were made by girls aged 16-17, with the youngest, shockingly, just seven-years-old.
A Freedom of Information (FOI) request also revealed that between 2018-2019, 165 children were at risk of child marriage in England and Wales. A further 280 children were at risk of honour-based abuse. Yet, it seems the infrastructure is not there to even document many of these at-risk children, as a FOI request showed that 56% of children’s social care departments do not keep records of those children at risk of child marriage.
Back in May, during the national lockdown, women’s rights organisation IKWRO, warned that the situation would only worsen. This was due to many children’s access to help and advice being withdrawn through the closures of schools and the restrictions placed on movement.
Speaking about the dangers many children are being exposed to, Diana Nammi, founder the organisation, said that a spike in child marriages was anticipated, and that services must be prepared: “As the lockdown measures begin to lift, now more than ever, social services must be equipped to properly understand the dynamics of ‘honour’ and be ready to safeguard children. If they fail to do this, many will be left vulnerable to severe, lifelong harm”.
Charity Karma Nirvana made the same grim predictions, and stated that while during lockdown reports of forced marriages had surged, calls related to children had plummeted. This has left the charity concerned that the dramatic decrease is due to many children being isolated within lockdown and prevented from accessing the support that they need.
Commenting on the need for a significant legislative change to end child marriage, Natasha Rattu, director at Karma Nirvana, said: “No child should marry when legally you should be in education until 18. It is a contradiction in the law and often consent is synonymous with coercion”.
Over the years, a host of charities and NGOs have pushed for total ban on child marriage, and come together with the campaign “Safeguard futures: Ban child marriage”. The campaign is led by IKWRO, and co-chaired by Karma Nirvana, FORWARD and the Independent Yemen Group.
Working with these charities, and joining the push to eradicate child marriage, on Tuesday 6 October, Pauline Latham MP, presented the Marriage and Civil Partnership (Minimum Age) Bill to the House of Commons (HoC). The bill seeks to completely revoke parental or judicial consent for child marriages and civil partnerships. It would also criminalise child marriage and civil partnerships.
Speaking in the HoC on Tuesday, the MP for Mid Derbyshire, said: “Why are we allowing marriage of children in this country when the recognised age of adulthood is 18? This law dates back to 1929… since then our understanding of childhood and marriage has changed significantly. The United Kingdom now requires everyone to be in education or training until the age of 18”. She added: “They should not be leaving their education in order to be married so they can never have an economic future of independence”.
Commenting on the importance of the bill, Sarah Champion MP, one of 11 MPs who is co-sponsoring the bill, said: “Child marriage is a form of child abuse. We are talking about a young person living with someone that is potentially a complete stranger, and ending their education early”.
She added: “Even if there is just one child going through this I would still be campaigning to close the loophole. It makes us look like hypocrites internationally – we are proud of our campaign to end child marriage abroad yet we allow it in our own country”.
The date of the bill’s second reading is yet to be announced.
A spokesperson for the government, said: “The UK is a world leader in the fight against forced marriage – making this despicable practice an offence in 2014 and issuing 2,605 forced marriage protection orders. The law is clear, whatever age a couple gets married, they have to be free to make their own decision”.