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  • Chloe Squires

Is Childhood Marriage an Issue in Britain?

In 2020, the Forced Marriage Unit supported 759 individuals in cases related to forced marriage and/or female genital mutilation. Of this number, 199 cases (26 percent) involved individuals under the age of 18. In a trifecta of legal landmarks for women and girls in England and Wales, 2022 has seen the criminalisation of virginity testing, hymenoplasty, and, this month, a legal loophole has been closed, raising the legal age of marriage from 16 to 18.

Forced marriage has been on the governmental radar for decades. Forced Marriage Protection Orders were introduced in 2008 for England, Wales and Northern Ireland under the Forced Marriage (Civil Protection) Act 200 but the issue of forced childhood marriage has continued until very recently.

Child marriage is not often considered to be an issue in British society, yet since 1929, a legal loophole has allowed 16 and 17-year-olds in England and Wales to marry with parental consent. Data shows that 3,096 marriages involving children aged 16 and 17 were registered in England and Wales between 2007-2017, entirely legal under the now obsolete Ages of Marriage Act 1929.

In 2011, the Forced Marriage Unit helped deal with around 1,500 cases - however, registered marriages are only part of the United Kingdom’s child marriage problem. In 2019, 205 (15 percent) of cases involved children under the age of 15. Religious or customary marriages and ceremonies can happen at any age and many go unregistered with local councils. Consequently, these figures are not included in Office for National Statistics data. For this reason, rates of childhood marriage in the UK are thought to be much higher than can be proven.

The issue of child marriage is one which feeds into numerous social issues, including sexual and economic exploitation, physical and emotional abuse, modern slavery and, in some cases, honour killings. Diana Nammi, Founder of the Iranian and Kurdish Women’s Rights Organisation (IRWRO) explains that the impacts of underage marriage are numerous, multifaceted, and can include:

“reduced education and employment opportunities, an increase in mental health problems and a higher incidence of domestic violence.”

Many charities working domestically have been supporting children at risk of child marriage within the UK and overseas. IKWRO tells us that since 2015, the national helpline for “honour” based abuse received 1,041 child marriage cases involving under-18-year-olds.

In 2020, 26 percent of cases (199) dealt with by the UK’s Forced Marriage Unit involved children under 18. These cases relate to 54 countries outside of the UK, highlighting the international scope of this issue. Data from UNICEF shows that around the world, girls are disproportionately affected by child marriage; 1 in 5 young women aged 20 to 24 years old were married before their 18th birthday. Yet, in 2018, 28 teenage boys were married with parental consent in England and Wales. It is thought that child grooms are often overlooked in the fight to stop child marriage, with UNICEF finding that 115 million boys (1 in 30) around the world were married as children.

Charities have urged to government to do more to protect young people from this kind of hidden child abuse. In a letter to Boris Johnson, Girls Not Brides UK partnership wrote:

“Child marriage is often viewed as a ‘developing world issue’ and one that exclusively takes place overseas. The reality is that child marriage is an invisible but thriving issue in the UK today.”

It is hardly surprising, then, that there was little opposition to the new bill.

A Change in the Law

In 2003, Payzee Mahmod was married to a man nearly twice her age in the UK. Her sister, Banaz, was murdered in a so-called “honour killing” after she left the husband her family had chosen for her at the age of 17.

Payzee has worked with Conservative Member of Parliament Pauline Latham as well as the Iranian and Kurdish Women’s Rights Organisation to lobby for legal changes to criminalise child marriage. Subsequently, they have introduced a bill in Parliament which hopes to "transform the life chances of many girls".

Under the Marriage & Civil Partnership and The Child Marriage Bills, it now an offence to marry a child. This applies to both registered marriages and unregistered ceremonial events. The offence will apply to a marriage “whether or not it is carried out in England and Wales,” meaning it will now be an offence to take a child out of the country with the intention of carrying out a wedding, punishable with a seven-year prison sentence.

Currently, parents who force their children to marry can be punished by up to seven years in prison under the Anti-Social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Act, passed in 2014. But, granting permission for your 16- or 17-year-old child to marry has not been an offence, until now. The law will make it illegal for under 18s to marry in England and Wales, and it will also criminalise any involvement in arranging the marriage of someone under the age of 18, whether to another person under 18 or to an adult.

Though there was little opposition to the bill in Parliament, there are some concerns about how the new law will be implemented, especially as criminalisation is known to drive illegal activities underground. It is possible that the bill will encourage growing rates of undocumented ceremonial or religious marriages. For instance, with regards to the Roma community, for whom young marriages are common, there are worries that criminalising childhood marriage could have an unintended consequence of increasing the number of children - particularly European Roma and Traveller children - being taken into care.

It is likely that the new regulations will take time to trickle through to the communities it will most impact. The change is a welcome move to safeguard children from forced marriages and will provide young people with protection to complete their education and make informed decisions about their future. It is hoped that, under the Marriage & Civil Partnership and The Child Marriage Bills, young people who are at risk will be empowered, and the threat of prison will remove the organisational infrastructure around forced childhood marriages.

In the words of Payzee Malika: ‘This is life-saving. This is change’.

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