The UK government has committed to raising the minimum legal age of marriage to 18 in England and Wales — a huge win for campaigners who argue current rules fail to protect girls from abusive forced marriages.
At the moment, 16 and 17-year-olds can marry with the permission of their parents, but charities have long warned that this loophole makes it too easy for young people to be coerced into marriage. The loophole has remained despite 18 being the age of adulthood in the eyes of the law in the UK.
The Ministry of Justice has sent a letter to campaigners from the Girls Not Brides UK coalition, a leading cross-section of organisations who have led the campaign against child marriage in the UK, saying the department is committed to raising the minimum marriage age to 18, “as soon as legislative opportunity arises,” the Guardian reported on Friday.
It went on to say that the department is “committed to making sure children and young people are both protected and supported as they grow and develop in order to maximise their potential life chances. This includes having the opportunity to remain in education or training until they reach the age of 18.”
“Child marriage and having children too early in life can deprive them of these important life chances,” it added.
The justice department said that it would consult with the Home Office on whether a new criminal offence was needed or whether the existing law on forced marriage could be amended, according to the Guardian.
Meanwhile the Conservative MP and former chancellor of the exchequer, Sajid Javid, wrote in the Times on Saturday that he was introducing a private member’s bill calling for a change in the law.
A private member’s bill is a proposal that can be put forward by any MP or peer to introduce a new law or changes to current legislation. Although rarely successful, they are often used to increase publicity for important issues. If it gains enough support, the bill could then be voted on and become legislation.
Javid has described the practice of allowing 16- and 17-year-olds to marry as “child abuse”, and noted in his article that many people do not realise the current marrriage laws date back to before the Second World War.
“In practice, these children are rarely lovestruck teens. They are overwhelmingly young women who are coerced into marriage for cultural or religious reasons,” Javid wrote.
He added that growing up he had witnessed the “painful consequences” of parents pushing teenage girls into a lifelong commitment with men who were often much older. He also underlined the hypocrisy of the UK campaigning to end child marriage in developing countries while allowing it “by the back door” at home.
Natasha Rattu, the director of Karma Nirvana, a charity supporting victims of forced marriage and so-called honour-based violence, said that the commitment came after “relentless campaigning” from herself and other activists.
“We are delighted that the government has listened to our joint calls to end child marriage by committing to raising the legal age to 18," she said.
But she added that, while this is a “huge step in the right direction”, the government needs to go further and make child marriage a crime. “This would ensure maximum safeguards against all forms of child marriage and sends out the strongest possible message that child marriage is not accepted or tolerated by our government.”
Karma Nirvana is one of four grassroots organisations that make up the Girls Not Brides UK coalition — joined by IKWRO, the Iranian and Kurdish women’s rights charity; Forward, an African women-led nonprofit working to end gender-based violence; and the Independent Yemen Group, a campaign against poverty in Yemen.
Payzee Mahmod, a campaigner and survivor of child marriage, whose sister was murdered after fleeing a marriage she was forced into at the age of 17, has also expressed her joy at the government’s and Sajid Javid’s proposals.
Feeling hopeful ✨❤️ pic.twitter.com/LNA2kQl3xX— Payzee (@PayzeeMalika) June 11, 2021
She wrote in a message posted to Twitter that the news feels “surreal”.
“I am very much looking forward to this change being brought into law. I feel a sense of peace knowing that children are going to be safe from child marriage,” she continued.
She added: “It goes without saying that I wish something like this had existed when myself and my sister Banaz were child brides….Here’s to a future where EVERY child is safe, happy, and free to be a child.”