When news of the shooting of Malala Yousufzai broke, it sent a wave of revulsion around the world. A defenceless child had been shot simply because she had asked for her rights to be respected. What happened to Malala is truly shocking and it is only right that her attempted assassination has caused the outcry that it has. Yet, in our horror at this attack, we must not forget her message – that girls have a right to make their own choices about their lives and their futures.
Around the world, 10 million girls a year are married while they are still children. With a rising population, this will increase to 14 million per year over the next decade, according to recent figures from the UN. The grim reality of child marriage is that girls are barred from education and forced to take on the duties of being a wife, including bearing children, before their bodies and minds are ready. This is a childhood lost forever. One in nine of the child marriages that take place around the world are of girls who are fifteen or under.
On our doorstep
These youngest girls are five times more likely to die in childbirth than pregnant women in their twenties and many more of those who are ‘lucky’ enough to survive develop lifelong injuries and conditions. Some, like Elham Mahdi al Assi, don’t even make it that far. She was a thirteen-year-old Yemeni girl who died just days after marriage to a man in his twenties from injuries caused by marital rape.
Child marriage does not only affect the developing world; it is also happening on our doorstep. The All-Party Parliamentary Group on Population, Development and Reproductive Health, of which I am Chair, recently held a hearing into child marriage, during which we heard oral testimony from two British survivors of child marriage. Today, they are happy, healthy and working to support other girls and women in their communities affected by child and forced marriage.
Yet, this has come after a great deal of mental and physical anguish, disownment by their families, denial of further education and ostracism from their communities. You can read about their experiences and those of many other girls and women in our report of the hearing, A Childhood Lost, which has just been published.
I welcome the government’s plans to criminalise forced marriage, which will also help the significant minority of victims of forced marriage in this country who are children. Here and around the world, there are laws and international conventions in place to protect girls and women from the abuse of child marriage, yet enforcement is rare. This must change. Governments must show that they do not accept the actions of those who would suppress abuse and physically attack girls who only want to be able to learn and make their own way in the world.
We are encouraged that British aid is being spent on programmes to protect the rights of girls and women in developing countries, including delaying marriage, yet we must be consistent in this principle. Britain is signed up to the Convention on the Rights of the Child, yet still we allow marriages ‘with parental consent’ to take place when children are sixteen or seventeen.
I urge the government to close this legal loophole and to require the proper registration of ‘community’ and ‘religious’ marriages in order to protect British girls’ rights and autonomy. By doing so, we can make a difference to the lives of girls whose voices deserve to be heard.