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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 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 persisted.

Child marriage is not often considered an issue in British society, yet since 1929, the Guardian explains, there has been “a legal loophole that allows 16- and 17-year-olds in England and Wales to marry with parental consent”. Data shows 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 15. Chamber tells us that ‘the new law can also be enforced on cultural and religious marriages that are not registered with the local council and for adults who take children abroad to get married’. As marriage under these conditions are not included in Office for National Statistics data, rates of childhood marriage in the UK are thought to be much higher than can be proven.

The issue of child marriage feeds into numerous social problems, 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 domestic charities have supported children at risk of child marriage in the UK and overseas. For example, 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) worldwide were married as children.

Charities have urged to government to do more to protect young people from this kind of hidden child abuse. For example, 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.”

A Change in the Law

In 2003, Payzee Mahmod married 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, as documented by the BBC. Their report explains that Payzee has worked with Conservative member of Parliament, Pauline Latham, and 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, they hope, will "transform the life chances of many girls".

Under the Marriage and Civil Partnership (Minimum Age) Act 2022, it is now an offence. This applies to both registered marriages and unregistered ceremonial events. An article by The Week explains that ‘The offence would apply to a marriage “whether or not it is carried out in England and Wales”, meaning it would still be an offence to take children out of the country with the intention of carrying out a wedding’.

The Anti-Social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Act, passed in 2014, means that parents who force their children to marry can be punished by up to seven years in prison. 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 those under 18s to marry in England and Wales, and criminalise any involvement in arranging the marriage of someone under 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 with how the new law will be implemented, especially as criminalisation is known to drive illegal activities underground. The bill may encourage growing rates of undocumented ceremonial or religious marriages. For example, Yvonne MacNamara, chief executive of The Traveller Movement, told the BBC of concerns that the Bill could have “perverse, if unintended, consequence of increasing the number of children - particular European Roma and Traveller children - being taken into care".

The new regulations will likely take time to trickle through to the communities it will most impact. However, 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 at risk will be empowered, and the threat of prison will remove the organisational infrastructure around forced childhood marriages.

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


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