Plans to ban child marriage in England and Wales have passed their first hurdle in parliament with the government lending their backing to the measures.
The Marriage and Civil Partnership (Minimum Age) Bill had its second reading in the House of Commons on Friday – with both the government and opposition benches supporting the private members’ bill.
It comes after The Independent reported back in spring that hundreds of British girls are being “married off” as children each year due to UK law failing to properly protect them.
Religious marriages which are not formally registered are legally permitted to occur at any age in the UK, with girls as young as 10 sometimes married off. But it is difficult to work out how many of these marriages take place as they are not recorded.
While 16 and 17-year-old girls are allowed to get married as long as they get “parental consent”, campaigners argue this can be more akin to “parental coercion” in situations of child marriage.
The bill will raise the minimum age of marriage to 18 in all situations, as well as criminalising all marriages involving a child – even religious ceremonies.
“Any conduct for the purpose of causing a child to enter into a marriage” could be punished with a seven-year prison sentence under the new legislation which was proposed by the MP for Mid Derbyshire Pauline Latham.
Natasha Rattu, executive director of Karma Nirvana, a national charity supporting victims of honour-based abuse which trains the police, NHS and social services on such issues, told The Independent: “I’m absolutely delighted. This has been a decade-long campaign and this is the closest we have ever come to banning child marriage in the UK.”
The campaigner, whose organisation also runs a national helpline, said each week the service helps both victims and survivors of child marriage living in Britain.
Child marriage is “one of the most harmful” things anyone could endure, Ms Rattu, who is co-chair of Girls not Brides UK, added.
She added: “Our call handlers have heard on the frontline from child brides that have been raped on their wedding night and then trapped in a marriage where they go on to experience domestic abuse.
“In the last year, we have supported 76 cases of child marriage, of which an overwhelming 95 per cent (72 out of 76) were non-registered and religious marriages.
“These marriages are not reported or captured within government statistics, which is a significant barrier to protection and safeguarding.”
Ms Latham added: “Young girls and boys who are married before they are ready face abuse, losing opportunities for education and employment, and loss of independence.
“Banning child marriage is about safeguarding children’s futures, ensuring they have the opportunity to succeed in life.”
Jasvinder Sanghera, Karma Nirvana’s founder who escaped her own child marriage in Derby at 16-years-old, said there was a massive dearth of “understanding of the issues” then.
She added: “Meaning that next to no help was available. It is astonishing, if not unbelievable, that child marriage is still a huge problem across the whole of the UK in 2021. This Friday, the record on this is set to change”.
“It has been a huge struggle for me to come to terms with my experience of child marriage, but on a day like today I feel very moved knowing we have made a historic step forward.”
Diana Nammi, executive director of IKWRO, a charity which helps victims of honour-based violence, forced marriage, FGM and domestic abuse in the UK, said the changes marked a “huge step forward” in addressing both ‘honour’ based abuse and wider issues of violence against women and girls.
The “groundbreaking change” in law “will literally save lives and ensure that girls have the opportunities to make their own informed choices about their futures”, she added.
While Payzee Mahmod, a child marriage survivor, who now campaigns with IKWRO, said changing the law on child marriage would “give children the chance to enjoy the opportunities that they have the right to, the same opportunities that child marriage stole from my sister Banaz and I”.
Banaz Mahmod, her sister, was murdered in a so-called “honour killing” back in 2006. The 20-year-old Iraqi Kurdish woman who lived in South London was killed on the orders of her family after she left her abusive marriage for another man.
Ms Mahmod, her sister, added: “It has been a huge struggle for me to come to terms with my experience of child marriage, but on a day like today I feel very moved knowing we have made a historic step forward in safeguarding all children from all forms of child marriage.
“My 16-year-old self is ecstatic and happy for all the children whose lives will not be torn apart by child marriage. I am sure that my sister Banaz would have been proud and overjoyed that we have achieved this life-saving change in the law.”