Sarah Champion and Pauline Latham: We must end child marriages in the UK
To ensure that every child can fulfil their potential, we must now legislate to outlaw child marriage, write Labour's Sarah Champion and Conservative Pauline Latham
When most people think of child marriage, they imagine an appalling practice that happens far from our shores in developing nations. Many have no idea that it is legally happening here in England and Wales.
Payzee was just 16, growing up in a suburb and preparing for her GCSEs when her father arranged her wedding. All she wanted was to pursue her dream of university; she didn’t fully understand the consequences of marriage. Not wanting to upset her father, she secretly hoped the marriage would be stopped. However, within a year Payzee was married, pregnant and experiencing domestic violence. By 18, she was divorced. Today, she is battling to overcome the lifelong harms caused by her child marriage.
UNICEF defines child marriage as “any formal marriage or informal union between a child under the 18 and an adult or another child”. Yet the law still permits child marriage under the age of 18 in England and Wales through the legal exception of parental consent. This law, which was originally intended as a safeguard, dates back 90 years to a time when living together or getting pregnant out of wedlock was socially unacceptable. Times have changed. Today there is much better understanding of domestic abuse and the manner in which abusers can coerce family members into acting against their will.
By raising the minimum age for leaving education or training to 18, Parliament has rightly recognised that childhood should be safeguarded as a time for learning and personal development. To ensure that every child can fulfil their potential, we must now legislate to outlaw child marriage.
“Childhood should be safeguarded as a time for learning and personal development”
At present, the only way for a child to prevent their marriage is to report that they have not consented so that the marriage qualifies as “forced”. Putting the burden on children to have to recognise the marriage as forced and speak out is wrong and can endanger the child. In too many cases children simply decide to remain silent and suffer the consequences.
By allowing child marriage we are failing to protect children from domestic abuse and coercive control. It should be a crime for family members and faith leaders to sanction child marriage. This would send a clear message that marriage is a solemn undertaking between two consenting adults, and that it is not possible for a child to consent to such a bond.
As part of its international development work, the UK government promotes girls’ access to education, and recognises that a key element to this is ending child marriage. The UK even successfully campaigned for a UN commitment to end child marriage by 2030. Yet current law is undermining the UK’s important international work. This was demonstrated when a Bangladesh government official cited our government’s hypocrisy when it lowered its minimum age of marriage.
We are working with a growing coalition of lawyers and organisations from the Safeguard Futures: Ban Child Marriage campaign, calling for a change in the law in England and Wales to revoke all exceptions allowing marriage under 18 and to make child marriage a crime. This campaign is led by IKWRO, who co-chair the Girls Not Brides global campaign, and co-chaired by Karma Nirvana, FORWARD and the Independent Yemen Group. The coalition includes Human Rights Watch and specialist community organisations from across England and Wales, including Savera UK in Liverpool, The Angelou Centre in Newcastle, and The Wish Centre in Blackburn, as well as the LGBT+ anti-violence charity Galop, the Muslim Women’s Network and the anti-modern slavery group Freedom United.
Sarah Champion is Labour MP for Rotherham and Pauline Latham is Conservative MP for Mid Derbyshire