I beg to move,
That leave be given to bring in a Bill to raise the minimum age of consent to marriage or civil partnership to eighteen;
and for connected purposes.
Young people in this country have to stay in education or training until they are 18, although they can marry before that, at the age of 16, but only with parental consent. UNICEF believes that marriage before the age of 18 is a fundamental violation of human rights. I agree, and believe that it should be banned in this country. Following the first Girl Summit in 2014, the Department for International Development allocated up to £39 million over five years to support global efforts in preventing child marriages. By its proactive contribution, the UK recognised that child marriages resulted in early pregnancy and girls facing social isolation, interrupted schooling, limited career and vocational opportunities, as well as the increased risk of domestic violence. So why are we not leading the way by increasing the legal age of marriage in this country from 16 to 18—the recognised age of adulthood?
Under the United Nations sustainable development goals, states around the world pledged to end by 2030 marriages in which one or both spouses are under 18, but many Commonwealth countries still follow the legal lead of the UK. In Bangladesh, for instance, the official minimum age of matrimony is 18 for women and 21 for men, but a new provision allows child marriage to take place under special circumstances—that is, with parental consent and with permission from the courts. Lobbyists for this provision cited the current UK law as an example of why the legal age of marriage in Bangladesh should be lowered. Changes to laws in the UK reverberate around the world but this is not the only reason that fresh impetus should be given to increasing the minimum age for marriage from 16 to 18. It should be our priority to protect children, and that may mean from themselves as well as from potential dangers from others.
As we celebrate the centenary of the suffragette movement this year, we should recall that it was pressure from magnificent campaigners that brought about the Age of Marriage Act 1929. Until then, there was no defined minimum age, and making it 16 was seen as protecting children. However, 90 years ago, most young people would have been wage earners, unlike now when, in England, they must stay in full-time education, training or start an apprenticeship. None of these is compatible with a married environment. In fact, my own mother—along with very many others—began her working life after leaving school at 14. Life was very different in those days.
In the United Kingdom, children of 16 and 17 need the consent of their parents to be married. Surely this shows that they are not mature enough to make the decision themselves. But this is not the safeguard that it may once have been because it opens the door for forced marriages, or at least for pressure to be exerted on young people to marry to fulfil family demands. We have outlawed forced marriages here, due to a campaign by Jasvinder Sanghera of Karma Nirvana, which started in Derby. I would like the Minister for Women and Equalities to meet her at some point.
Marriage is a major life decision for which children are not emotionally and physically ready. Setting the minimum age of marriage at 18 provides an objective, rather than subjective, standard of maturity, which safeguards a child from being married when they are not physically, mentally or emotionally ready. Many argue that there should be a minimum level of maturity, and free and full consent about whether, whom and when to marry.
The international human rights conventions on the rights of women and children say that countries should end the practice of enabling child marriage below 18; thus the UK is violating these same commitments. International law is very specific about who should be allowed to marry. If a country wants to permit exceptions to the minimum marriage age of 18, “mature, capable” children are allowed to marry only “in exceptional circumstances” at age 16 or older, when
“such decisions are made by a judge based on legitimate exceptional grounds defined by law…without deference to culture and tradition.”
By allowing 16-year-olds to marry without consent from a judge, the UK is breaking international law, but that has not stopped the UK from telling other countries to follow the same rules that it is flouting. It is important to realise that the UK has a duty to live by the very standards that it is keen to advocate for in the developing world. It is crucial that, as well as trying to eradicate child marriage around the world, the UK meets international human rights standards at home to end this harmful practice.
In 1951, Pugh v. Pugh set legal precedent in handling a case relating to the capacity for the young to be married. In his conclusion, Mr Justice Pearce said: “According to modern thought”—this is 1951, remember—
“it is considered socially and morally wrong that persons of an age, at which we now believe them to be immature and provide for their education, should have the stresses, responsibilities and sexual freedom of marriage and the physical strain of childbirth. Child marriages by common consent are bad for the participants and bad for the institution of marriage.”
His words are as relevant today as they were 70 years ago.
We have an outdated system that we need to change. There are all sorts of things that people can do at different ages, but I believe that we should be looking at moving all, or most, of those things to 18. In most people’s view, 16-year-olds are still children. We should be giving them the opportunity to get married when they are more mature, more sensible and more settled in their lives than they are when they are still at school. Can anybody imagine sustaining a married life while at school, with the strains of exams such as GCSEs and A-levels, and education in college? There are so many pressures at that age, and a marriage intruding on that will cause young people, who think they are mature, to face huge strains and will prevent them from fulfilling their potential. We should now show the world how seriously we take this issue, and increase the minimum age of marriage in England and Wales to 18.