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Campaigners’ joy as MPs back bill to raise minimum marriage age to 18 and stop child marriage

Charity Karma Nirvana recorded 76 cases of child marriage reported to its hotline in 2020. This bill could stop that.

After decades of campaigning, organisations at the forefront of ending child marriage are sharing their joy as the Marriage and Civil Partnership (Minimum Age) Bill passed its second reading in parliament recently.

The current legislation permits 16- and 17-year-olds to get married with parental consent but the new bill will raise the minimum age of marriage from 16 to 18. It will also close a legal loophole that critics say has heightened the increase of coerced child marriage in the UK.

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In 2020, the Home Office’s Forced Marriage Unit reported 759 potential cases of forced marriage in the UK. About a quarter of these cases were children under the age of 18, with 15 per cent aged 15 and under. 

Karma Nirvana is a national charity which aims to end honour-based violence and has been campaigning for this change for 10 years, executive director Natasha Rattu told The Big Issue.

“We are all absolutely delighted. As we run a national helpline, we have had so many cases of women who are victims of child marriage,” said Rattu.

“I have been working on this goal for six years. It’s a relief and a fantastic moment. It’s been a collaborative effort from us and the number of survivors that have spoken out,” said Sara Browne,  campaign manager at IKWRO, a charity that provides support to victims of honour-based violence, forced child marriage, female genital mutilation and domestic violence.

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“As a campaigning lawyer, I work on so many campaigns to change the law to better the lives of girls and women. It’s always amazing when you finally see a second reading of a bill pass,” said Dr. Charlotte Proudman, barrister and legal advisor of Girls Not Brides UK, a global organisation with the mission to end child marriage.

Child marriage is often associated with third world countries, however, the number of substantial cases presented by campaigners has highlighted that child marriage is very much prevalent in the developed world.

“We have had calls related to children as young as seven experiencing child marriage in the UK. Last year, we had 76 cases of child marriage reported to our hotline — 95 per cent were religious and unregistered marriages. This is happening in a developed UK,” said Karma Nirvana’s Rattu.

“It is happening domestically, but it has taken an organisation like ours to [show] that it is not just a foreign problem, as it is so hidden here. We have children that are born here taken abroad to be forced into child marriages.”

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“Being a lawyer, I have come across many reports of child marriage in this country. Particularly in the Roma community, child marriages range from all different ages, from 14, 15 and 16. But it is not just the Roma community, but other communities, including our own,” said Dr. Proudman, who played a pivotal role in writing the bill. “It happens here in the UK, this idea of children running off to Gretna Green, being in love and getting married — the romanticised view of it.”

One of the biggest challenges campaigners face regarding child marriage in the UK is that the vast majority of marriages carried out are unregistered.

“I think this bill will send a strong message that child marriage is a criminal offence in this country. At the moment it’s not. So, this bill will be a deterrent for parents and family members who are even considering this type of behaviour,” said  Dr. Proudman.

IKWRO’s Browne added: “The vast majority of cases are unregistered and that’s why we specifically went for designing this law. The active act of marrying a child will be an offence.”

Dr. Proudman highlighted how the UK failing to criminalise child marriage is undermining the country’s credibility in the eyes of the world.

“The UK is rightly encouraging other countries to criminalise child marriage, but it has failed to do it at home,” said Dr. Proudman. “So, developing countries are not practicing their own values? At 16, should anyone be getting married? At 16, you can’t even vote, so how is it right that you can get married and take on all these responsibilities at a young age?”

Under the proposed law, children will be exempt from any prosecution, but adults could face up to seven years in prison and a fine for aiding child marriage.

Following its successful second reading, the Marriage and Civil Partnership (Minimum Age) Bill will continue to progress through the House of Commons and on its way to becoming enshrined in law.

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