On Wednesday 29 January we were joined at Portcullis House by more than 100 passionate social advocates, parliamentarians, legislators, educators, students and grassroots organisations to promote discussion, collaboration and education on the issues surrounding child marriage in England and Wales. We came together with a collective goal to safeguard a brighter future for our children, here at home, and in turn, around the world.
In England and Wales today, girls and boys can be legally married at the age of 16 with parental consent. This horrific and outdated practice places vulnerable children at risk and goes largely ignored in our society.
Is child marriage really happening?
In 2014 the Anti-Social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Act made it a criminal offence to force someone to marry. But forced marriage does not sufficiently protect against child marriage: in many instances, 16-year-old girls are not forced but coerced into marriage.
“Coercion is often so subtle,” explained panellist Sara Browne, Campaign Manager at women’s rights organisation IKWRO, at the event. “For many survivors it can take a whole lifetime to see their marriage was forced.”
Even in modern Britain, there are many factors that can put a child at risk of being pressured into an early marriage, including poverty, family traditions, customary or religious laws that promote the practice, and an inadequate legislative framework.
Official figures show 3354 marriages involving children aged 16 and 17 taking place in England and Wales between 2006 and 2016 - but the real number is likely to be much higher. The Office for National Statistics (ONS) does not capture key types of non-registered marriage, including religious or cultural marriages, cases involving children younger than 16, or marriages conducted abroad to evade registration.
Speaking at the event, child marriage Survivor Ambassador Payzee Mahmod described the adult complicity that the current legislation creates. “No one at the bridalwear and jewellery shops we visited ever questioned my parents about my age… Even at the Registry Office I expected someone to say something about this young girl marrying a much older man – but no one did.”
Fellow event Panellist Natasha Rattu is the CEO of Karma Nirvana, a national human rights charity that runs a helpline offering direct support and guidance to victims of child marriage. She told delegates in the room at Wednesday’s event, “It is a national issue and the common thread is that it happens in socially conservative families across all religions and communities. In Britain we are now seeing girls from such a diverse range of communities and backgrounds coming forward for help.”
What difference does a law make?
As much as the factors that drive child marriage are complex, so too are the solutions to stopping it. Changing the legislation that currently allows it is the focus of the Safeguard Futures Ban Child Marriage Campaign, a cross-organisational effort supported in Parliament by cross-party MPs.
Labour MP Sarah Champion, a key parliamentary supporter, explained that we cannot expect children to call out parental coercion entirely alone. “Changing the law will make a difference to all children at risk of child marriage, not least by providing them with a legal platform from which to speak out.”
Payzee explained to a group of school children at the event that if the law had been in place when she was 16, she would have felt far more empowered to speak out against her parents. “If I could have said to them ‘look, you do know what you’re doing is illegal?’ it might have made them think twice. And then, by the age of 18, I would have been far better placed as an adult to exercise my own agency and say no to my marriage.”
And it’s not just in England and Wales that our laws matter. Panellist Elin Martinez, Senior Researcher at Human Rights Watch, explained, “As a country that has adopted a position on girls rights generally... We cannot continue with this status quo.”
Indeed, in 2017 when Bangladesh removed any minimum age for marriage, the Council cited British law as a justification.
Addressing concerns that criminalising child marriage would push offenders further underground, Payzee commented: “We’ve seen how much the law changed the situation with FGM... Having the message there in black and white will change how people see child marriage.” Community reactions to similar issues backs this up: in 2015, the year following the criminalisation of forced marriage, reporting of these crimes increased by a huge 68%.
Panellist Larissa Kennedy, a UK Representative for Youth for Change, spoke on the importance of including young people in this advocacy work, “The great thing about this campaign is it is not being done to young people, but with them. Every child deserves to learn and grow and find out who she is, and not in relation to someone else.”
Business as a non-traditional approach
Child marriage is a complex social issue that requires a complex solution. At Brides do Good we are trying to look at the problem in an innovative way - one that can open new doors and determine new ways to support the organisations working for positive change.
The potential of untapped resources in business industries cannot be underestimated. As Brides do Good Founder Chantal Khoueiry said, “Having worked in retail for many years, I have seen the largely untapped resources that exist in commercial industries, in relation to tackling social issues. I’m not just talking about unlocking additional funding - although the wedding industry in the UK alone is worth £10 billion - but also access to a skilled and experienced workforce, to tackle big issues which are normally confronted by traditional (often-underfunded and understaffed) charities.”
Gradually, we are seeing more social enterprises and brands actively looking to create corporate social responsibility programmes, but this needs to pick up pace. More investment in grassroots projects and advocacy programmes like this one must be seen.
Write to your MP and ask for change
Changing the law is a cross-parliamentary issue that gains momentum with every new MP that backs it - and MPs respond to interest from the public. As Conservative MP Pauline Latham, OBE, has been spearheading the campaign amongst Parliamentary representatives and encourages everyone to lobby their MP. “Please write to your MP. Not an identikit letter or an email, but your own personal letter. This is how you will get MPs’ attention and create change.”
Add your signature to the 105,000 others
Ultimately, this landmark event underlined the need for a unified and cohesive effort to change the law in England and Wales. At the root of the issue is a human cost, and one that remains at the heart of the campaign.
It is time to end child Marriage in England and Wales. To support the campaign and make your voice heard, sign the petition and lobby your local MP. Together we can create brighter futures for vulnerable children right here at home.