Damaging and outdated child marriage is now illegal for under 18s in the UK
Most people, indeed most parliamentarians, are shocked to hear that child marriage is legal in the United Kingdom.
Those that are aware of it often think that child marriage is limited to 16 and 17 year olds getting married with their parents’ consent. Around 150 couples a year marry in this way – a much bigger problem is the scourge of unregistered child marriages.
Until today, there was no legal protection for a child in this country – of any age – from being encouraged or conditioned to enter into a religious or traditional marriage, as long as this marriage was not civilly registered.
Any child marriage will automatically be deemed a forced marriage, and those arranging it could face up to seven years in prison
Ninety five per cent of the child marriage cases which charity Karma Nirvana deal with are unregistered marriages, including only a religious or traditional ceremony. Whilst it is difficult to be sure, because by their very nature these marriages are unregistered, estimates suggest that there could be more than 2,800 unregistered child marriages per year.
The fact that these marriages are unregistered does not make them any less damaging to a child’s future. In the eyes of the attendees, the community, the family and even the couple, the actual signing of the civil registration forms are often an unimportant part of the marriage – after the religious ceremony, the person is considered married as far as their families and communities are concerned.
Child marriages, affecting mainly girls but sometimes boys too, are hugely damaging to the child involved. The child almost always leaves education, is taken away from their friends and family, often faces physical violence, controlling behaviour and sexual abuse, and in the most tragic of cases, even death.
Throughout the campaign to make this form of marriage illegal, we have had the privilege of working with inspirational survivors of child marriage. Campaigners such as Payzee Mahmod and Farhana Raval bravely told their devastating stories to underscore the need for wide-ranging legislation.
In the 2021-22 session, we passed the Marriage and Civil Partnership (Minimum Age) Act, which comes into force today. This piece of legislation has two aims.
The first is to remove the anachronistic exception which allows parents to permit a child to enter a registered marriage at 16 or 17. This outdated law can be abused in cases where the parents are actually the driving force behind the marriage and not the children. This loophole will close, and the law is now incredibly clear – it is illegal, in any circumstances, for a child to marry under the age of 18.
The second, and most significant part of the legislation, is to create a new offence of child marriage. It sits within existing forced marriage law, and it means that any child marriage will automatically be deemed a forced marriage, and those arranging it could face up to seven years in prison.
Crucially, this applies to unregistered as well as registered marriages. Any ceremony which represents a marriage in the eyes of the community, or the family, will be covered. It will now no longer be possible to arrange child marriages simply by avoiding a civil ceremony or postponing a civil ceremony until the age of 18, as happens in many cases.
This law also includes the occasions where girls and boys are taken out of the country to be married. This is common in child marriage cases, such as in Farhana’s case, who was taken to Bangladesh at 16 and coerced into marriage.
Thanks to this law, all UK citizens who are habitually resident in England and Wales will have legal protection from child marriage, wherever the marriages takes place in the world.
The key challenge now is to ensure that the guidance which the government has produced for those who are on the front line of dealing with child marriage – teachers, the police, social workers, border force, religious communities – is distributed and followed effectively.
It has been an honour to work alongside the inspirational campaigners in the Girls not Brides coalition to make this law a reality after years of campaigning, and it was extremely moving to see the emotion and sense of relief when the UK Parliament took action and said no to child marriage.
Pauline Latham, Conservative MP for Mid Derbyshire. Baroness Sugg, Conservative peer.
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