A ban on child marriage in England and Wales came a step closer Friday with cross-party support for a new bill in the House of Commons.
The marriage and civil partnership (minimum age) bill had its second reading in parliament, with government and opposition MPs supporting the private member’s bill brought by Conservative MP Pauline Latham.
The vote was welcomed by campaigners and survivors of child marriage who have been lobbying against the current legislation, which allows 16 and 17-year-olds to wed with parental consent.
The bill would raise the minimum age of marriage and civil partnership to 18, but also criminalise any marriage, including non-legalised religious marriages, under that age, making “any conduct causing” such a union an offence. Crucially, campaigners say, this would take the onus away from a child to prove their marriage is forced, and strengthen the responsibility of professionals in safeguarding children.
Many cases of child marriage in the UK are unregistered and “invisible”, campaigners say, taking place in religious or traditional family settings at ages lower than 16.
“As a child bride myself, I celebrate with tears of pain and of joy, as we are one step closer to ending child marriages,” said Ruby Marie, 38, from Wales, who was forced to marry at 15. She now works as an ambassador for Karma Nirvana, a UK charity supporting victims of forced marriage and “honour”-based abuse.
She said that the “child abuse” of underage marriage can cause lifelong trauma.
“You get PTSD [post-traumatic stress disorder],” said Marie, whose father and uncles took her to Bangladesh to marry and kept her there until she got pregnant, months later. “I was lost for a very long time. I was a child, with the body of a child. I was raped by a man twice my age. I felt I was being sold. I was mentally confused. I loved them, how would they do this to me? It is mental torture. This bill will help so many people.”
In Britain, children as young as seven are at risk of child marriage, Karma Nirvana said. This year the group supported 78 children in England and Wales facing the threat of forced marriage. Three were under 10 – the youngest, seven – while the majority, 52 children, were 16 and 17.
Most were of British Pakistani heritage, but they also helped Kurdish, Romanian, Turkish and Afghan children born or living in the UK.
Zeynep* came to London with her mother in 2016 from her homeland, where she had already survived a short-lived marriage to an abusive man.
“In my country it happens to very young children,” Zaynep said. “It is a humiliating tradition. I was 12. My mother told me: ‘This is normal.’”
“I want child marriage to be made illegal, because that way, when you ask for help you would get it,” she said. “I’m angry I didn’t get help and I don’t want that to happen to anyone else.”
Fearing she would be remarried in the UK, Zeynab said she went to the police for protection four times before being taken seriously. She hopes a change in the law would improve police protection for victims.
Officers came to her house and initially removed her from her family, but after two days she was returned to them.
“My family denied everything. They said I was crazy and I told lies. I was so disappointed. It was a huge step for me to go to the police.”
At the age of 15, she was married to a 26-year-old man in the UK.
“One day, he told everyone, my mother-in-law, father-in-law, to leave the house. My mother came on the phone and said now you need to have sex with him and prove you are a virgin. He locked the door. I was so scared. He raped me.”
Last year Zeynep gained police protection and now lives with a foster family and is supported by the Iranian and Kurdish Women’s Rights Organisation (IKWRO), which has long campaigned to ban child marriage.
“Many bad things have happened to me,” she said. “But having supportive people around me has helped me, given me strength. I feel powerful.”
“I thought about going to the police for months,” Zaynep said, of her first attempt to get help in London, at 13. “I didn’t know the number, so I Googled it. I was so scared. And then, they sent me back to my family, who denied everything. My mum threatened to kill me.”
*Zaynep is not her real name.
In the UK, the NSPCC offers support to children on 0800 1111, and adults concerned about a child on 0808 800 5000. The National Association for People Abused in Childhood (Napac) offers support for adult survivors on 0808 801 0331. In the US, call or text the Childhelp abuse hotline on 800-422-4453. In Australia, children, young adults, parents and teachers can contact the Kids Helpline on 1800 55 1800; adult survivors can seek help at Blue Knot Foundation on 1300 657 380. Other sources of help can be found at Child Helplines International.