Campaigners have hailed a new law raising the legal age of marriage in England and Wales as a significant milestone in child protection.
The Marriage and Civil Partnership (Minimum Age) Act comes into force on Monday following a five-year campaign and will prevent 16- and 17-year-olds from marrying or entering a civil partnership, even if they have parental consent.
Campaigners have long argued that a legal loophole allowing 16- and 17-year-olds to marry with parental consent was being exploited to coerce young people into child marriage.
The law makes it illegal to arrange for a child to marry, whether or not force is used and regardless of whether the marriage is religious or legally recognised, with the new criminal offence carrying a sentence of up to seven years in prison. The law, which will not change the age of marriage in Scotland or Northern Ireland, will automatically recognise children married under the age of 18 as victims of forced marriage.
Pauline Latham, the Conservative MP who spearheaded the law with a private member’s bill called it a “landmark day for campaigners who have worked relentlessly for over five years to ban child marriage in this country”.
“Child marriage destroys lives and through this legislation we will protect millions of boys and girls over the coming years from this scourge,” she said.
The UN is pushing for every country to end child marriage by 2030. The practice often sees girls leave education early and suffer domestic abuse and is associated with serious physical and mental health problems.
Previously, forced marriage was only an offence if a person used coercion, such as threats, to get someone to marry, but now causing the marriage of someone under the age of 18 is a criminal offence, including non-legally binding “traditional” ceremonies, which would still be viewed as marriages by the parties and their families.
Payzee Mahmod, who was born in Kurdistan and came to the UK at the age of 11, was married at 16 to a man nearly twice her age. Her sister, Banaz, who was married at 17, was murdered in a so-called “honour” killing in 2006. Now a campaigner for the IKWRO women’s rights organisation, Mahmod told the Guardian in 2020 that her sister “was forced into a child marriage to a stranger and there was no law to protect her”.
She added that girls like her and her sister were victims of “subtle institutionalised racism”, adding: “None of my teachers, social workers, neighbours, all those wedding shop retailers … nobody asked if I was safe. All that tells me is that it is because of how I look and where I’m from.”
In 2021 the government’s Forced Marriage Unit intervened in 118 cases involving child victims; courts have also issued 3,343 forced marriage protection orders – preventing someone from using threats, violence or emotional abuse as a way to force a person into marriage – between their introduction in 2008 and September 2022.
The charity Karma Nirvana, which has protected girls as young as 11 from child marriage and is a member of the Girls Not Brides coalition, assisted 177 children at risk of forced marriage through its helpline between 2020 and 2022.
Its director, Natasha Rattu, called the change in legislation “a huge victory for survivors”, saying it would give greater protection to children at risk.
“It is a huge leap forward to tackling this usually hidden abuse,” she said. “Last year, the national honour-based abuse helpline supported 64 cases of child marriage, representing only a small picture of a much bigger problem.”
The minister for safeguarding, Sarah Dines, said: “Forced marriage is an abuse of human rights which denies vulnerable children the freedom to learn, grow and thrive. Like all other forms of abuse, I’m committed to stamping out this exploitative practice.”