Child marriage is “any formal marriage or informal union between a child under the age of 18 and an adult or another child” (UNICEF). Parliament has recognised, by raising the minimum age for leaving education or training to eighteen, that childhood should be safeguarded as a time for learning and personal development.
Safeguarding children from child marriage will enable every child the opportunity to complete their education, make informed choices about their future and reach their full potential.
Child marriage causes lifelong harm
Types of child marriage
Child marriage is both impacting children from the UK and is also being perpetrated by men from the UK against children overseas. It takes the form of registered marriages, which are recognised under British law and also religious or customary marriages, which can happen at any age and may or may not also be registered. An unregistered child marriage causes no less harm than a registered marriage.
Scale of the problem
Office of National Statistics (ONS) data shows that in the last 10 years, for which data is available (2006-2016), 3354 marriages involving children aged 16 and 17 were registered in England and Wales. Significantly, overall, the average age of marriage in England and Wales has continued to rise and the number of people getting married aged 17 and under has fallen (to 179 in 2016). This shows that as a society we have moved on and that most people no longer want child marriage.
However, as the data shows, child marriage is continuing and the damage that it causes to the children it harms is so profound, that no time must be wasted in ensuring the law is fit for purpose to protect children from this abuse; every child matters.
Registered marriages are only part of the picture of the UK child marriage problem; the ONS statistics do not capture non-registered religious or cultural marriages or child marriages that take place abroad involving children or adults who have lived in the UK.
Child marriage is a hidden form of child abuse, so it is important to look to a range of sources for prevalence. In 2018 a third of cases (33%, 574) dealt with by the UK’s Forced Marriage Unit involved children aged 17 and under.
The vast majority of victims (75%) were females, showing that this issue is disproportionately affecting girls. The cases relate to 110 countries demonstrating the breadth of the UK child marriage problem globally.
Since 2015, the National helpline for “honour” based abuse received 852 child marriage cases involving under-18 year olds and under, and many other charities working domestically have been supporting many more children at risk of child marriage within the UK and abroad.
Many child marriages are never reported nor captured by statistics. Current ambiguity in the law is a barrier to protection and likely keeps the known numbers down.
Comparisons to other age related laws
The Children Act 1989, in line with the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child defines a child as ‘a person under the age of 18’. Under the age of 18 a person cannot:
Current law is failing to safeguard children from child marriage
There is no explicit crime of child marriage, at any age (including under 16, the minimum age that a marriage can be registered). A child marriage that takes place involving a child aged under 16 is simply not legally binding, unless it qualifies as a forced marriage.
For a child marriage to qualify as a forced marriage, relies upon whether both parties are deemed to have consented and had the capacity to consent. The test for capacity to consent is defined under the Mental Capacity Act 2005 and, importantly, age is not a stand-alone factor in determining lack of capacity to consent. So one or both parties being a minor does not automatically qualify a child marriage as being a forced marriage and therefore a crime. The onus is on the child to recognise the marriage is forced in order to get protection from it, which in practice leaves many vulnerable to child marriage.
Forced marriage law is insufficient to protect children who do not have the agency, on account of being children who are likely to be living at home under the influence of their family or community, to declare their marriage as being forced. They may be victims of coercive control. Reliance on the child victim to raise the alarm can put them in great danger from “honour” based abuse, they may be fearful of being harmed or being removed from school and taken elsewhere immediately if their family finds out they have asked for help. Some may not want to get their family in trouble.
Current civil law permits child marriage under the age of 18 across the UK, including in England and Wales, through the legal exception of parental consent, which too often amounts to parental and community coercion.
Child Marriage can be both a cause and a consequence of trafficking and modern slavery. By tackling child marriage, progress in tackling these abuses will be strengthened.
As the National Policing Lead for “Honour” Based Abuse, Forced Marriage and Female Genital Mutilation, I am delighted to lend my support to this campaign to see a change in the law to prevent child marriage under 18. Society has moved on since these antiquated laws, more needs to done to protect children when they are vulnerable between the ages of 16 and 17, not to be forced into what is effectively child marriage. A change in the law, making it clear that all marriage under 18 were a crime, would assist all parts of the criminal justice system in protecting children.
Commander Ivan Balhatchet, National Police Chiefs Council Lead for “Honour” Based Abuse, Forced Marriage and FGM
What needs to happen
The minimum age for registering a marriage must be 18 with no exceptions and all forms of child marriage (civil, religious and customary) involving a child aged under 18 must be made a crime.
Criminalisation will act as a deterrent and empower those at risk. It is known that criminalisation helps victims; in the year after criminalisation of forced marriage there was a 68% increase in reporting to the police.
Criminalisation would make it clear to statutory agencies (in particular police and social services) that all children must be safeguarded from the offence of child marriage and that they must take positive action and assist them readily, even if there are no obvious indications of sexual or physical violence. Currently such cases can sometimes be overlooked.
Only adults should be culpable for the offence of child marriage. There should be no change to the age of sexual consent, which is a distinct matter.
The Marriage and Civil Partnership (Minimum Age) Bill [HL] 2016-2017 to raise the age of marriage to 18 and make child marriage a crime successfully passed through the House of Lords and only did not progress to the House of Commons due to lack of time. This shows there is support for change.
We have drafted a new Bill with our expert legal team which we want to see made into law.
How you can help
- Back the campaign and the Bill and help gather support.
- To confirm your support or for further information please contact Sara Browne, Campaign Manager at IKWRO via Sara.Browne@ikwro.org.uk or on 0207 920 6460.
IKWRO is leading this campaign as Co-chairs of the Girls Not Brides global network which comprises over 1200 organisations working to end child marriage around the world.
Our fellow Co-Chairs are Karma Nirvana, FORWARD and the Independent Yemen Group.
With special thanks to Anne-Marie Hutchinson, Charlotte Proudman, Cris McCurley, Emma Fenn, Naomi Wiseman, Shabina Begum and Sulema Jahangir.
Please also see the attached briefing.
Safeguard Futures Ban Child Marriage campaign media coverage:
- Counsel: Ban child marriage: safeguard futures
- The Telegraph: Charlotte Proudman: Child marriage in Britain is not illegal. I’m fighting to end it. [PDF]
- BBC Three Counties: Payzee Mahmod, IKWRO Survivor Ambassador on the Outlaw Child Marriage campaign (audio)
- BBC1: Payzee Mahmod, IKWRO Survivor Ambassador to joint #SafeguardFuturesBanChildMarriage with Girls Not Brides UK
- The Times: Outlaw child marriage now – Letter from Sarah Champion
- BBC Breakfast: Child marriage should be a crime [Video]
- The Sunday Times: Payzee Mahmod – I laughed off talk of arranged marriage at 15, but at 16 I had a husband
- The Sunday Times: Girls Not Brides call for ban on child marriages in Britain
- Sky News: Protect girls from forced marriage by increasing minimum age to 18, say campaigners
- The Times: Teen ‘slave’ bride calls for end to marriage under 18 [PDF]
- The Times: Council powerless over refugee child bride [PDF]