Hundreds of British girls are being “married off” as children each year due to UK law failing to properly protect them, campaigners have warned.
Charities said child marriage is often deemed an issue for the developing world but it occurs across the UK, it is just “hidden in plain sight”.
Religious marriages which are not formally registered are legally permitted to occur at any age in the UK, with girls as young as 10 sometimes married off. But it is difficult to work out how many of these marriages take place as they are not recorded.
While 16 and 17-year-old girls are allowed to get married as long as they get “parental consent”, campaigners argue this can be more akin to “parental coercion” in situations of child marriage.
Office for National Statistics data shows some 183 people got married with parental consent in 2017 – with 140 of these being girls. In the decade up to 2016, some 3,300 marriages in England and Wales involved children, the majority of which were girls.
Karma Nirvana, a national charity supporting victims of honour-based abuse which trains the police, NHS and social services on such issues, have urged the government to ban child marriage in the next 60 days.
The charity, which also runs a national helpline, alongside The Five Foundation, a global organisation seeking to eliminate female genital mutilation, have written to Boris Johnson asking him to urgently ban child marriage.
Campaigners gave the example of one 15-year-old girl from Hull, who informed her teacher she was anxious she and her younger 13-year-old sister would be transported from the UK to marry men they had been “promised to”.
Her teacher is said to have attempted to speak to the sisters’ mother but was informed it was “just some misunderstanding”. Nevertheless, after Christmas, the girls did not come back to class as usual in the new year – with a fellow student who was friends with them telling the school both girls had flown to Afghanistan and were now married to adult males.
Campaigners also drew attention to the case of a 10-year-old girl who became engaged to her 20-year-old cousin. She is said to have then gone on to have a religious marriage at the age of 15 and is now living in Middlesborough with him and his relatives.
Natasha Rattu, Karma Nirvana’s executive director, said: “It is important to highlight that whilst a child marriage could also be a forced marriage, it is an incorrect presumption that every case of child marriage is also a forced marriage.
“The law does not recognise age as a standalone factor in determining lack of capacity to consent. As such, children are not automatically considered as lacking capacity to consent to a marriage. The law does not adequately protect them.
“Although there are many laws in this country to protect children, such as remaining in education or training until 18 and not being able to buy cigarettes or use sunbeds, we fail to protect them from the harms of child marriage.”
Legislation, which would make child marriage a crime in the UK, was introduced to parliament last Autumn, but the bill had its second reading postponed because of the pandemic.
Nimco Ali, chief executive of The Five Foundation and independent government adviser for Tackling Violence Against Women and Girls, said: “The current law also severely undermines the UK’s international work to end child marriage and needs to be updated immediately.”
A study, carried out by the United Nations’ sexual and reproductive health agency (UNFPA) at the end of last April, warned the coronavirus outbreak could stall measures to curb the practice of child marriage and possibly lead to an additional 13 million child marriages around the world in the next decade that could have been stopped.
More than 20,000 underage girls are married every day, research by Save the Children found in 2017.
A spokesperson for the government has been contacted for comment.
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