In England in 2016, the most recently available data, 141 girls aged 16 or 17 were legally married, some to men over twenty years older than them. This is lawful because of a loophole in the law dating back to 1929 that says while the minimum age to marry is 18, children aged 16 and 17 can marry if they have their parents’ consent.
When I was a teacher and headteacher, too often I saw girls aged 16 or 17 who should have had the chance to go on to achieve in education being taken out of school and married against their will, leaving them with little choice about their future and at risk of serious abuse within their marriage.
Evidence from Girls not Brides UK shows us that usually these children are being coerced into marriages by family members, conditioned to believe from a young age that this is what they must do. These children are placed at further risk by the fact that, once married, they can no longer be taken into care for their own protection, under a care order.
That is why I am encouraged to hear that the Government is likely to back a Private Members’ Bill introduced by Sajid Javid MP which would close this legal loophole.
But we must also make sure that alongside legal child marriage we also stop other forms of child marriage – including religious or customary marriage, or marriages that take place abroad. While they may not be legally valid here, for the children involved in them they are just as real, and the consequences of trying to leave can be just as severe – in the most tragic cases, leading to so called ‘honour killings’.
While there are laws in place that make forcing someone into these kinds of marriages a crime, it is necessary to show that coercion or duress have occurred. Understandably, children are often too afraid to speak out against their family, making it hard to prove . We need to see a change in the law that makes clear that child marriage itself is a crime, and remove the need for children to prove they were forced into it. This would send a clear message to families, and all those working with children, that child marriage is never acceptable and that action to protect children will be taken whenever it occurs.
I have been proud to serve on the G7’s Gender Equality Advisory Council this year, and the Government’s proposals to end child marriage show that it is taking seriously the commitments it made last week to protect girls. They must use this opportunity to make sure those protections are as strong as possible.