Editor’s note: This article was originally published on June 14, and was updated on Nov. 22 2021 to reflect the Marriage and Civil Partnership (Minimum Age) Bill passing its second reading in the House of Commons and being further on the way to becoming law.
Members of Parliament (MPs) in the House of Commons have back a new law that would raise 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.
The Bill was brought was Conservative MP Pauline Latham who told the Commons on Friday that supporting it would send "a clear message to everyone that child marriage is unacceptable.”
Health Secretary Sajid Javid has also played an important role as a supporter of the proposed changes to the law, saying that the vote was "an opportunity for this House to show unambiguously and make it crystal clear that child marriage is child abuse and it will never be tolerated in this country.”
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 proposed change to the law would be a blanket ban, including non-legalised religious ceremonies, and taking a child abroad to marry. The children would not face charges, but adults could face up to seven years in prison and a fine, according to the BBC.
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 expressed relief at the support shown for ending child marriage by politicians.
She wrote on Twitter: “Every single one of you who have taken an action (no matter how big or small) you are part of this win. Thank you.”
Back in June, indications that the government was willing to change the law in England and Wales began when the Ministry of Justice 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.
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 then 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.
Javid wrote an article about child marriage and the bill’s progress in the Times in June, noting in his article that many people don’t realise 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 from the government 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.
Her organisation has been campaigning not just for a ban, but for facilitating child marriage to become a crime, as that “would ensure maximum safeguards against all forms of child marriage.”