April 26, 2022, was an important day for Payzee Mahmod. It’s the day that child marriage was made illegal in England in Wales and it marked the triumph of a decade long campaigning journey.
Yes, you read that right. It wasn’t until this year that the minimum age of marriage and civil partnership was raised to 18 across England and Wales. Many organizations and activists worked tirelessly to get to this moment — and Payzee has been a prominent voice in the fight. And in recognition of her years of work, Payzee has been named the winner of the 2022 Global Citizen Prize: Citizen Award UK.
Back in 2004, Payzee was a normal teenager, idolizing pop stars and pursuing her education. But her childhood was stolen from her.
At just 16 years old, Payzee was coerced into child marriage with an older man. Lacking the knowledge, power, and language to protest the marriage, Payzee hoped another adult or professional in her life would intervene. But, tragically, they didn’t and the marriage went ahead.
“I wish people knew child marriage harms children,” she tells Global Citizen. “No one should ever be against child marriage being banned.”
Payzee managed to escape her child marriage but her sister, Banaz, was not so lucky. Banaz, who had also been married as a child, left her abusive marriage and moved back into the South London family home. But in January 2006, she disappeared. Banaz had gone to the police five times for help.
Three months later, her body was found in Birmingham. She had been murdered in a so-called "honour killing". Her father, her uncle, and three other men were tried and sentenced to life imprisonment. When Payzee turned 18, she got divorced and arranged Banaz’s funeral — all in the space of one month.
Since then, Payzee has become a leading voice and driving force to end child marriage in England and Wales with IKWRO, a women’s rights orgasnisation on a mission to advance MENA and Afghan women's and girls' rights, tackle discrimination and violence against women and girls, and empower women and girls. Her proudest campaigning moment was seeing the bill to raise the minimum age for marriage become law.
Child marriage. Virginity Testing. Hymenoplasty.— Payzee (@PayzeeMalika) April 28, 2022
All 3 have received Royal Assent today.
Proud, honoured and speechless to have been part of these campaigns.
I can only say thank you to every one who has worked on this with us. What an emotional week.
Change is possible.
The obstacles on the way have been many. “I faced a lot of backlash online which really shocked me,” Payzee says. “I’m here talking about children, the most vulnerable group in our society, and people online will send racist, Islamophobic comments. That’s been quite surprising and sad. But an equally incredible amount of people did engage with us positively.”
Meanwhile, she faced a different kind of obstacle with the UK government: “We had so much pushback because this issue was not prioritised.” Taking a bill through the UK parliament is an immensely convoluted process and one that Payzee and her peers had undertaken twice before before seeing it brushed aside.
“This was the third time we were trying to make it law," says Payzee. "It was so frustrating to see that this issue wasn’t an urgent issue to the UK government. During the lockdown, so many more children were at home and more at risk. That was a big challenge for us — getting them to see the urgency.”
Another argument raised was that it wasn’t a prevalent enough issue. “Some people might think this is a hidden issue. But it’s actually hidden in plain sight,” she says.
While official data might make it look like child marriage is not a big problem in the UK, Payzee warns against the gaps in this data.
“The ONS figures show that child marriage numbers are very low," she explains. "But they’re only taking into account official marriages. You also have to think about all of the unofficial or unregistered marriages taking place. And that’s not even to mention the marriages that take place when girls are taken out of the UK to be married and then return to this country. This data doesn’t give us the full picture.”
An "official marriage" is when a couple goes to a registry office and the marriage is legally captured within the national database. But outside of that, there are many forms of cultural and religious weddings that go unregistered by the legal system in the UK.
“I had an Islamic wedding and a legally registered wedding,” Payzee says, “but had I just had the former, my marriage would never have been officially recognised. It would have fallen through the data cracks."
“We might think if it’s not registered, it’s not a big deal," she adds. "But in the eyes of the community, it is a real marriage. The child is burdened with the real responsibilities of the marriage."
What’s more, Payzee argues, it shouldn’t be a question of numbers. “I find people saying, ‘It’s only a couple of kids’ — a really hurtful excuse for inaction. It’s not about the fact that it’s a small number, it’s the fact that it’s happening at all. If we think every child matters, we can’t allow child marriage in any context. Even one child is too many.”
It’s also not an issue unique to one community: “Child marriage runs through races, cultures, and can impact anyone. The drivers exist in all societies. Sometimes there is family pressure within the community. Sometimes it’s about status or wealth. This is a global thing that countries experience.”
So after this immense journey, what gives Payzee hope today? She says it’s the next generation.
“I see so much resilience,” she says. “We must equip them with the right tools for them to have a safe, happy, and equal life. Knowing that what we have done will save girls from going through the lifelong harms of child marriage. Even if it helps just one person, it matters.”
“When it gets tough,” she says, “remember that fighting for any cause that you believe in, you will face challenges and you will be told no. The one piece of advice I would give to aspiring activists is: just believe that you, one individual, can make change. I wish somebody had told me that. I lost hope sometimes. I lost the belief that what I was doing was ever going to impact someone. But every person has the power to change things. Every person that signed our petition helped. Every action you take when you believe in a cause can change things.”
As a Global Citizen Prize: Citizen Award winner, Payzee will receive a year-long programme of support from Global Citizen, as well as a donation to IKWRO. She says the recognition helps validate the importance of raising your voice on important issues.
“When I was growing up, I never thought my voice was strong enough to change anything or to move anyone because of the way I was raised and my experiences. It has helped me acknowledge the power in lending your voice to something that you believe in,” she says about winning this award.
On May 22, all eight Global Citizen Prize winners — including Payzee and her fellow Citizen Award winners from around the world, as well as this year’s Global Citizen Prize: Cisco Youth Leadership Award winner, Nidhi Pant — will be celebrated at an awards ceremony and intimate dinner event taking place at New York City’s Gotham Hall.
The event will recognise the winners’ extraordinary work, with an exclusive stream of the Global Citizen Prize event airing on YouTube and Twitter on June 2, at 12 p.m. ET.
You can join Payzee in helping to empower women and girls and demand equity by taking action here.