As local lockdowns and school absences bring about the greatest surge in forced marriage rates in 25 years, activists are fighting to close the legal loophole that continues to perpetuate child marriage within the UK
Shockingly, 12 million girls fall victim to child Marriage every year. And with the pandemic increasing poverty and forcing girls out of school and into work or marriage, global charity Save the Children has revealed that Covid alone could force another 2.5 million girls into child marriage by 2025.
Girls in South Asia are expected to be the hardest hit, with almost 200,000 young women at risk this year. This is followed by the 90,000 girls in West and Central Africa and some 73,400 girls in Latin America and the Caribbean. The UK is also facing its own hidden battle – as a legal loophole continues to perpetuate the practice of child marriage.
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, this can result in forced marriage whereby parents consent on behalf of their children.
Charities and activists worry that local lockdowns, as well as the ability of parents to remove their children from school under the guise of coronavirus, has made it harder than ever for teachers to spot and report abuse – resulting in such ceremonies occurring unchecked. And now data has revealed that Covid has caused referrals from professionals to plummet during lockdown.
Natasha Rattu, director at charity Karma Nirvana, told the Guardian: ‘No child should marry when legally you should be in education until 18. It is a contradiction in the law and often consent is synonymous with coercion. Currently the onus is on the victim to say they have been forced into marriage. A ban on child marriage would take away that pressure.’
In the last two and a half years, 2,377 calls have been made about a child marriage to the UK’s national forced marriage helpline. 66% of these cases represented girls aged just 16 and 17, with the youngest victim just seven years old.
In the second quarter of this year, during peak lockdown, however, referrals dropped by 59%. Despite a rise in reports of ‘honour’ abuse and forced marriages, Karma Nirvana said that calls relating to children fell dramatically.
Since schools returned, the charity recorded 49 calls from 7-25th September about seven children, including a girl under 10 – sparking concern that girls were unable to seek help without support from teachers.
So that’s why campaigners are pushing for legislative change, with Conservative MP Pauline Latham presenting the 10-minute rule bill in parliament tomorrow. The proposed bill will call for the removal of the existing loophole that allows 16 and 17 year-olds to marry in England and Wales with parental consent.
Latham claims the current law is wildly outdated. ‘In the 40s and 50s it was seen as a disgrace to have a baby out of wedlock and people were leaving school at 14 to go to work,’ the MP told the Guardian. ‘But life has moved on with many different opportunities available for young women.’
Latham added: ‘There are lots of things you can’t do until you are an adult like get a mortgage or a tattoo but marriage is an anomaly. In Scotland, you can get married without parental consent but I’m saying you shouldn’t be allowed to marry at all under 18, during which time children by law should be in full-time education or training.’
Latham is calling for the introduction of criminal offences for anyone who conducts a child marriage ceremony where the participants are under 18 – with participating parents being handed a custodial sentence.
‘Making it illegal to marry under-18s would remove ambiguity and strengthen everyone’s hand in child safeguarding, the MP said.
A spokesperson for the government said: ‘The UK is a world leader in the fight against forced marriage – making this despicable practice an offence in 2014 and issuing 2,605 forced marriage protection orders. The law is clear, whatever age a couple gets married, they have to be free to make their own decision.’
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