British legal loophole continues to sanction child marriage

UK Parliament. Photo credit: This Parliamentary Copyright image is reproduced with the permission of Parliament

Updated 27 February 2017 (originally posted 20 October 2016)

15 million girls under 18 are married each year worldwide. The impact of getting married at such a young age is the same no matter in which country you live. Girls are at risk of school-drop out, sexual activity often without consent or contraception, and a myriad of health-related consequences that accompany teenage pregnancy.  To some, the phrase “child marriage” conjures up images of a very young girl, living in the developing world, getting married to a much older man. This happens, but in reality, child marriage is more complex than that and it cuts across all regions, religions and cultures. It’s a global problem and it happens in the United Kingdom too. More shockingly it is written into British law.

Although the official legal age for marriage in England, Wales and Northern Ireland is 18, children can marry from 16 with parental consent. In Scotland, the legal age for marriage is 16. In some communities across the UK this can result in forced child marriage whereby parents can consent on behalf of their children. The Home Office estimates that between 5,000 and 8,000 people are at risk of being forced into marriage every year in the UK. In 2013, the UK Forced Marriage Unit’s helpline dealt with 1,302 cases of forced marriage; 40% of the calls received concerned minors.

A Bill to rectify this injustice, had passed through the House of Lords in 2016. However, it couldn’t proceed to the House of Commons in the current session as there was no more room for Private Members Bills. As a result, it will be  re-introduced to the House of Lords in mid-2017. Baroness Jenny Tonge, former Liberal Democrat MP, is supporting this process. The Marriage and Civil Partnership (Minimum Age) in the UK Private Member’s Bill proposes that the parental consent clause be removed from the law so that 18 is the only legal age for marriage and civil partnership.

Frustratingly, previous efforts to amend the existing law have been rejected. This was rumoured to be because some of those advocating to lower the voting age in the UK to 16 felt that raising the legal age of marriage was in conflict with their efforts. It should really go without saying that voting and marrying are very different; marriage is a major life decision for which children are not emotionally and physically ready. The lives of thousands of children in the UK should not be caught up in Westminster quarrels.

It is also important to realise that the UK has a duty to live by the very standards it is keen to advocate for in developing world. The Department for International Development recently invested £36 million into a project to accelerate action to end child marriage in 12 high prevalence countries.  In Bangladesh, which has the second highest absolute numbers of child marriage in the world (just under 4 million), lobbyists are said to be using the current UK law as an example of why the legal age of marriage there should be lowered. As well as trying to eradicate child marriage around the world it is also crucial that the UK meets International Human Rights standards at home to end this harmful practice.