Child marriage is ‘any formal marriage or informal union between a child under the age of 18 and an adult or another child’ (UNICEF). Child marriage is not a criminal offence in England and Wales. Children can marry between the ages of 16-17 with parental consent in accordance with s 3 of the Marriage Act 1949. Marriages that take place involving children below the age of 16 are void but they are not criminalised. There is no legal provision currently in place that prevents religious or customary child marriages, at any age, from taking place. Often religious or customary marriages carry even more weight than civil marriages within certain families or communities. Whilst there may only be a minority of civil marriages taking place with parental consent between children from the ages of 16-17 years old, it is unknown how many British children are married abroad and how many religious and customary marriages involving children take place each year.
The Safeguard Futures Ban Child Marriage campaign is organised by a group of women’s rights NGOs in the UK who coordinate Girls Not Brides UK and leading lawyers specialising in violence against women and girls. Girls Not Brides UK is the UK partnership of the global Girls Not Brides network of more than 1,200 organisations working to end child marriage around the world.
The campaign aims to do two things: to increase the minimum age for registering a legally binding marriage to 18 (with no exceptions); and to make all forms of marriage, civil, religious or customary, taking place in the UK or abroad, involving a child under the age of 18 a criminal offence where one of the parties to the marriage is a British citizen or is Ordinarily Resident in the UK.
Collectively, we have drafted a proposed Bill, which we anticipate will be presented to Parliament. Baroness Jenny Tonge sponsored a Bill in 2016-2017 to raise the age of marriage to 18 and to make child marriage a crime. The Bill successfully passed through the House of Lords, only failing to progress to the House of Commons due to a general election.
Child marriage has a detrimental impact on the lives of children in our country. Banaz Mahmod was murdered by her family in 2006 in the name of so-called honour. Banaz had been trapped in a child marriage that had been arranged by her family when she was just 17, to a much older, abusive man. Despite the violence she experienced, her family tried to prevent her from leaving the child marriage. When she eventually left her husband and fell in love with a family friend, her family disapproved of the relationship, believed that she had dishonoured them and arranged for her murder. Banaz’s sister, Payzee Mahmod now in her 30s and a successful fashion stylist, was also pressured into a child marriage by her family at the age of 16 to a violent man almost double her age. She was expected to become a subservient wife when she was still a child. Payzee is a courageous advocate for women and an ambassador for the Safeguard Futures Ban Child Marriage campaign. Payzee explains why she supports the change to the law, ‘I wish it [child marriage] was illegal when I was married. I wish I could have said no and had control over marrying when I wanted to.I lost my childhood and was forced to live a life I did not choose.’
Men from England and Wales perpetrating child marriages overseas, are also harming children abroad. Nadia from Syria, (not her real name), describes how she felt at the age of 16 when her family arranged for her to marry a much older British man: ‘I saw him the first time, and just ran. He was a very big man and 11 years older. Child marriage is a big mistake. Because I have experienced it, I know how it feels, when you are just a girl and you get married. It is very hard. I loved studying and had many ambitions, which child marriage stole from me. You should choose your own life. No-one should choose it for you. Now I need to divorce. In my culture, being 19 and divorced is a problem. No one can accept you as you. Child marriage should be a crime.’
When national law undermines global stance
It is surprising that child marriage is not a criminal offence. The government worked hard to ensure child marriage was included as Goal 5.3 in the Sustainable Development Goals and a target has been established to end such marriages. Whilst the government has taken a leading role internationally as a force for good in ending child marriage, our national laws undermine our global efforts. Bangladeshi officials even cited England and Wales, as hypocritical for trying to engender progressive change abroad whilst turning a blind eye to child marriage at home.
Criminalisation of child marriage is imperative. It will act as a deterrent and empower those at risk. IKWRO, one of the NGOs leading this campaign, carried out research using Freedom of Information requests which showed that in the year after the criminalisation of forced marriage in 2014 there was a 68% increase in the reporting of forced marriages to the police. However, at present, there is a legal loophole in that, for a child marriage to be criminalised, it must be shown that an element of ‘force’ was involved in order to prosecute under forced marriage legislation. But the reality is that many children acquiesce or through other forms of covert pressure, comply with demands to marry. Thus it is often challenging to gather the necessary evidence to prosecute for the subjective test of forced marriage. For example, if the girl is 17 or under and due to her age, love of her family, might be compliant with the marriage, it would be difficult to ascertain what other offence might be committed. Whereas if there were a specific criminal offence of child marriage with the objective test of age, it would be clear that the wrongful action would be criminalised.
Making child marriage a crime would send out a strong message to statutory agencies such as the police and children’s services that all children must be safeguarded from child marriage and they must take positive action to end it. Cases that do not involve obvious signs of neglect can be overlooked. Reliance on the child victim to raise the alarm can put them in great danger from so-called ‘honour’ based abuse, they may be fearful of being beaten or being removed from school and taken elsewhere immediately if their family finds out they have asked for help. Some may not want to get their family in trouble. Current law is failing children at risk.
Hidden form of abuse
Child marriage is a hidden form of abuse therefore it is difficult to ascertain prevalence numbers. However, in 2018, a third of cases (33%, 574) dealt with by the Forced Marriage Unit in the UK involved children under the age of 18. 75% of victims were girls. In 2015, Karma Nirvana, an NGO leading the campaign and running a national helpline for so-called honour abuse received 852 child marriage cases involving children under the age of 18. The current ambiguity in the law is a likely barrier to protection and continues to depress the numbers. The impact of child marriage cannot be stressed enough; girl brides can face increased risk of lower levels of education with over 50% of girls married before the age of 18 having no more than three years of schooling; the likelihood of intimate partner violence vastly increases; and there are likely to be more complications in pregnancy and childbirth in terms of the physical and emotional health of girls.
Societal understanding of what it means to be a child has changed and children are now required to continue in education or training until the age of 18. The Office of National Statistics data shows that in the last 10 years (2006-2016) 3,354 marriages involving children aged 16-17 were registered in England and Wales. The number of such marriages fell in 2016 to 179. Despite the change in social norms, reflected by the decreasing numbers of child marriages being registered, our laws have not kept up to date, leaving children vulnerable to child marriage without sufficient legal protection. Commander Ivan Balhatchet, National Police Chiefs Council Lead for Honour Based Abuse, Forced Marriage and FGM explained: ‘Society has moved on since these antiquated laws, more needs to be done to protect children when they are vulnerable between the ages of 16 and 17, and not to be forced into what is effectively child marriage. A change in the law, making it clear that all marriage under 18 were a crime, would assist all parts of the criminal justice system in protecting children.’
Following the criminalisation of coercive control, our understanding of power in abusive relationships has changed. It is clear that there is an imbalance of power between parents and their children, particularly if there is an expectation of marriage at a young age. For many, parental consent to the marriage of a child between 16 and 17 can mean parental coercion.
To endorse or find out more about the campaign please email Sara Browne, campaign manager at IKWRO at firstname.lastname@example.org
SIX MONTH SNAPSHOT: Karma Nirvana’s helpline data (April to end September 2019) shows:
•29 children at risk of child marriage identified as new cases (26 female and 3 male);
•10 children at risk of being married abroad by their parents
•2 children at risk of forced marriage (FM) in the UK;
•For 2 children, siblings/other family members forced to marry;
•At the point of initial contact no FMPOs were in place for the children referred to the helpline;
•The youngest child was a 12 years old girl at risk of FM abroad, experiencing HBA and had run away from home;
•During the last 6 months KN have provided on-going guidance and support to a further 17 children at risk of FM (existing cases).
Co-Chairs of Girls Not Brides UK and Safeguard Futures Ban Child Marriage Campaign:
Independent Yemen Group
Safeguard Futures Ban Child Marriage Campaign Legal Team:
Dr Charlotte Proudman, barrister at Goldsmith Chambers
Naomi Wiseman, barrister at Garden Court Chambers
Emma Fenn, barrister at Garden Court Chambers
Cris McCurley, partner at Ben Hoare Bell Solicitors
Anne Marie Hutchinson OBE QC, partner at Dawson Cornwell
Sulema Jahangir, senior associate at Dawson Cornwell
Shabina Begum, associate at Dawson Cornwell
UK government accused of hypocrisy: Under the UN Sustainable Development Goals the UK was amongst a number of countries pledging to end all marriage before 18 by 2030. ‘They have their work cut out,’ writes Heather Barr for Human Rights Watch. ‘Around the world today, a girl under 18 marries every two seconds. In 2014, the UK government hosted the high-profile Girl Summit, designed to boost – and pledging UK leadership for – global efforts to end child marriage and female genital mutilation. But in the years since, the UK government not only failed to ban child marriage at home – it actually blocked an earlier effort to do so.’: ‘Hypocrisy Undermines UK pledge to Fight Child Marriage Overseas’, Heather Barr, Human Rights Watch.
Dr Charlotte Proudman, Barrister at Goldsmith Chambers and Fellow at Queens’ College Cambridge
Sara Browne, Campaign Manager, IKWRO and Solicitor (non-practising)
Natasha Rattu, Chief Executive Officer, Karma Nirvana and Barrister (non-practising)