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  • Writer's pictureDurham Pro Bono Blog

Child Marriages in the UK

Disclaimer: The views expressed are that of the individual author. All rights are reserved to the original authors of the materials consulted, which are identified in the footnotes below.


By Julia Ju



What is child marriage?

Child marriage is when a person under the age of 18 is forced or coerced into marrying adults who are, typically, twice their age. There are a number of elements that may put a child, more often girls than boys,[1] at risk of marriage such as ‘poverty, family traditions, customary or religious laws that promote the practice, and an inadequate legislative framework’.[2] Currently, The Anti-social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Act 2014 criminalises forced marriages in the UK. In particular, the case Hirani v Hirani[3] expanded the definition of duress to include emotional pressure as well as danger to ‘life, limb or liberty’.[4] This is important to consider as, arguably, children are more prone and vulnerable to being pressured into marriage by their parents.


‘Legal Loophole’

It has been argued that forced marriage laws do not properly safeguard children as there is a ‘legal loophole’ which permits 16 to 17-year-olds to marry with parental consent.[5] This is in spite of the fact that the United Nations has declared that any marital relationships under the age of 18 are to be classified as child marriage.[6] Arguably, as the burden is on the child to go against their family to protect themselves from marriage, dangerous consequences can arise from this such as ‘honour killing’. Further, some children having a deep bond with their parents[7] may be too scared or unwilling to go against their families wishes. Consequently, this makes it harder to detect forced or coerced marriages, not to mention the fact that seeking help can put the child in danger.


Payzee Mahmod, who was a British child coerced into marriage with a man almost twice her age, has been fighting for a ban on child marriage in the UK. She has argued that child marriage is a ‘hidden crime yet it is very much a live issue here in Britain and one of the most harmful things any child can go through. Girls are raped on their wedding nights by older men and it is common for them to have forced pregnancies – something my sister and I both experienced’. Her sister, Banaz, was murdered by her family in an alleged ‘honour killing’ when she left the husband she was forced to marry.


Child Marriage ‘thriving’ in the UK

It is often perceived that child marriage is a ‘developing world issue’, so it may come as a surprise to some people that it is an ‘invisible but thriving’ issue in the UK.[8] For example, around 5,000 to 8,000 children are at risk of being coerced into marriage annually across the UK.[9] Thus, it is ironic that the UK government has been trying to end child marriage abroad when there are child marriages happening in the UK. Moreover, it has influenced countries such as Bangladesh to legalise underage marriage. In fact, Bangladesh officials have named the UK a ‘hypocrite’ in seeking to prevent child marriage abroad whilst ‘turning a blind eye’ on its own issues on child marriage within the UK.[10]


Indeed, Chantal Khoueiry, founder of Brides do Good points out that ‘when people hear about child marriage in developing countries they are rightly shocked, yet from our recent survey results it is clear that the majority of people have absolutely no idea it is happening in the UK too’.[11]This is said to exist due to the ‘lack of data’ on child marriage cases where it must be noted that existing data does not include religious marriages which are not considered to be legally permitted at any age in the UK and so are not recorded.[12] Consequently, it is clear that the current UK law on forced marriage insufficiently safeguards young children from marriage.


How has covid affected child marriages?

Due to the pandemic, it is said that an increasing number of girls are at risk of being forced into marriage. As Kevin Watkins, CEO of Save the Children UK suggests, ‘the pandemic means more families are being pushed into poverty, forcing many girls to work to support their families, to go without food, to become the main caregivers for sick family members, and to drop out of school—with far less of a chance than boys of ever returning’.[13] Thus, it should come as a warning that the pandemic can have dangerous consequences for children around the world, as suggested by a study executed by the United Nations’ sexual and reproductive health agency (UNFPA) who suggests that as covid can hold back the consideration and implementation of a ban on child marriages not only in the UK but worldwide, it could lead to another 13 million child marriages during the next ten years.[14]


A ban on child marriage needs to happen immediately

Evidently, a ban should be put in place as soon as possible for child marriages in the UK. This is because not only does this take away children’s childhood as well as the right to education and freedom, but child marriage can also be considered as marital rape ‘from day one’[15] which no one, much less a child, should ever have to go through especially at such a young age. As supported by Javed Khan, chief executive of Barnardo’s, it is evident that there need to be safeguards put in place to prohibit child marriages, to ‘protect their childhoods, their futures and in some cases, their lives’.[16]


 

[1] Ellie Price, ‘Under-18 marriages ‘thriving’ in UK and should be banned, say charities’ BBC News (London, 4 May 2020). [2] Almara Abgarian, ‘International Day of the Girl: Campaign releases powerful photo series to raise awareness of child marriage’ Metro (London, 11 Oct 2019). [3] (1983) 4 FLR 232. [4] Aisha Gill and Sundari Anitha, ‘The illusion of protection? An analysis of forced marriage legislation and policy in the UK’ (2009) Journal of social welfare & family law 31(3) 257, 259. [5] Hannah Summers, ‘Child Marriage “thriving in UK” due to legal loophole, warn rights groups’ The Guardian (London, 4 May 2021). [6] Abgarian (n 2). [7] Canadian Paediatric Society, ‘Attachment: A connection for life’ Caring for Kids <https://www.caringforkids.cps.ca/handouts/pregnancy-and-babies/attachment> accessed 10 June 2021. [8] Price (n 1). [9] Jessica Morgan, ‘I Was Coerced into Child Marriage At 16, Now I’m Fighting To Stop It In The UK’ (14 February 2020) <https://www.refinery29.com/en-gb/child-marriage-uk-legislation> accessed on 10 June 2021. [10] Price (n 1). [11] Abgarian (n 2). [12] Maya Oppenheim, ‘Hundreds of British Girls “Married off as children each year”’ The Independent (London, 5 March 2021). [13] Save the Children, ‘Covid-19 places half a million more girls at risk of child marriage this year, warns Save The Children’ Save the Children <https://www.savethechildren.org.uk/news/media-centre/press-releases/covid-19-places-half-a-million-more-girls-at-risk-of-child-marri0> accessed on 10 June 2021. [14] Oppenheim (n 12). [15] Hannah Summers, ‘Back bill to ban marriage for under-18s in England and Wales, MPs urged’ The Guardian (London, 6 October 2020). [16] Summers (n 5).

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