Law banning marriage under 18 praised as ‘huge victory’ for children’s rights

New legislation banning child marriage has come into force in England and Wales in a move that campaigners hailed as a “victory”.

The legal age of marriage has been raised to 18, meaning 16 and 17-year-olds can no longer get married or have a civil partnership even if their parents give consent.

The Marriage and Civil Partnership (Minimum Age) Act 2022, which was given royal assent in April last year, means it is now against the law to push children into marriage. Offenders who arrange child marriages face a seven-year jail sentence.

Diana Nammi, executive director of the Iranian and Kurdish Women’s Rights Organisation, a British charity that helps victims of honour-based abuse, told The Independent the legislation marks a “major step forward” for children’s rights.

She added: “We’ve campaigned for this change for a decade because no child should be subjected to the lifelong harms that come with child marriage.

“I urge everyone to spread the word about this important change to the law and to come forward for support if they know of any child at risk of child marriage.”

Honour-based abuse includes forced marriage, which sees girls or women taken abroad to be married off to strangers, coercive control and female genital mutilation (FGM), as well as assault, threats to kill, attempted murder and murder.

The Independent previously reported on warnings that hundreds of British girls were being “married off” each year due to UK law failing to properly protect them. Charities said child marriage has often been deemed an issue for the developing world but it occurs across the UK, it is just “hidden in plain sight”.

Before the law change, religious marriages, which were not formally registered, were legally permitted to occur at any age in the UK, with girls as young as 10 sometimes married off. But it is difficult to work out how many of these marriages take place as they are not recorded.

While 16 and 17-year-olds were only allowed to get married with parental consent, campaigners have previously argued that this can be more akin to “parental coercion” in situations of child marriage.

Dominic Raab, deputy PM and the secretary of state for justice, said: “This law will better protect vulnerable young people, by cracking down on forced marriage in our society.”

The legislation incorporates unofficial marriages not formally registered but deemed marriages by the couple and their relatives.

Pauline Latham, a Conservative MP who helped usher in the law change by presenting a private member’s bill to parliament, said: “Child marriage destroys lives and, through this legislation, we will protect millions of boys and girls over the coming years from this scourge.”

Natasha Rattu, director of Karma Nirvana, a national charity supporting victims of honour-based abuse, said: “The change to legislation on child marriage is a huge victory for survivors. It is a huge leap forward to tackling this usually hidden abuse and will provide a greater degree of protection to those at risk.

“Last year, the national Honour Based Abuse helpline supported 64 cases of child marriage, representing only a small picture of a much bigger problem. We hope that the new law will help to increase identification and reporting, affording greater protection to children at risk.”

Ms Rattu, whose charity runs a national helpline, noted the government’s forced marriage unit delivered help in 118 cases involving victims under 18 in 2021.

“The courts have also issued 3,343 forced marriage protection orders between their introduction in 2008 and September 2022, which prevents someone from using threats, violence or emotional abuse as a way to force a person into marriage,” the campaigner, who was part of the Girls Not Brides coalition, which played a key role in the new law change, added.

Afrah Qassim, founder and chief executive of Savera UK, a charity that campaigns against honour-based abuse, said: “Child marriage being outlawed marks a huge milestone in the fight to end all harmful practices, including child or forced marriage and ‘honour’-based abuse.”

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