Clause 1 - Marriage: increase of minimum age to 18

Part of Marriage and Civil Partnership (Minimum Age) Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 9:45 am on 12th January 2022.

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Photo of Sarah Champion Sarah Champion Chair, International Development Committee, Chair, International Development Committee 9:45 am, 12th January 2022

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Sir George. I am so pleased that the hon. Member for Mid Derbyshire has campaigned with such tenacity on this issue. She has had knocks from every side, but she has kept on going because she knows that it is the right thing to do. I am in awe that she has got the Bill to this point, and all power to her. I would also like to thank the Iranian and Kurdish Women’s Rights Organisation, Karma Nirvana and the Girls Not Brides campaign for their ongoing work to help victims and put an end to child marriage.

This is a big problem. Internationally, 12 million girls are married before the age of 18 each year. That is 23 girls every minute. The UK signed up to the UN definition of a child being someone up to the age of 18, but child marriage is still prevalent in this country. Currently our laws allow for a legal marriage to take place from age 16 with parental consent. However, Karma Nirvana’s executive director, Natasha Rattu, says that in her experience many children are pressured into these marriages by family members. Last year, over a quarter—199—of the 753 cases dealt with by the UK’s forced marriage unit were of children under 18, and 113 of those forced marriages were of children under 15.

It is often difficult to apply the parameters of forced marriage to child marriage. Child marriage violates girls’ rights to health, education and opportunity. Girls are highly likely to experience sexual and domestic violence in a child marriage and they often struggle to find a way out. If the UK wants to be a global leader on women and girls’ rights, we must begin by banishing this horrendous practice from our own communities once and for all. Between 2007 and 2017, 3,096 marriages involving children aged 16 and 17 were legally registered in England and Wales, according to the Office for National Statistics. However, we must also discuss the importance of tackling unregistered child marriages. That is why I am so supportive of this Bill.

In the last year, Karma Nirvana has offered support in 76 cases of child marriage. Only 5% of those were registered and an overwhelming 95%—72 out of 76—were non-registered and religious marriages. These marriages are never reported, which presents a really significant barrier to protection and safeguarding. It is so important that this Bill covers any marriage involving a child who lives in England and Wales, or who is a UK national—here is the crux of it—even if the marriage does not take place in this country. It also covers those who officiate the marriage, so no more turning a blind eye with this Bill.

For years I have worked to try to improve safeguarding for all children, both nationally and internationally, which is why I am delighted that this Bill will provide a huge step forward in preventing child abuse. I am proud that England and Wales will soon be able to set an example for other countries to follow—I urge the rest of the UK to do the same.

Internationally, there is still a long way to go but there is some progress. In the USA, for example, in 2017 all 50 states allowed minors to marry in some cases. Since 2018, six states have banned all marriages before 18, but most states allow teens to marry at 16 or 17 if parents and a judge consent. Nine states still have no minimum age for marriage at all. We need to ensure that more protections are in place and that the general public are aware of the laws, so that victims of child marriage can be identified and supported, and I thank the hon. Member for Mid Derbyshire so much for the work she is doing to make that a reality.