It’s a devastating fact for many to learn, but child marriages are happening here in the UK right under our noses, completely legally. As it stands, children as young as 16 are being forced or coerced into marriage, using a legal loophole that allows under-18s to marry with parental consent.
This law is nearly a century out of date. It was introduced in 1929 when couples living together or starting a family out of wedlock was socially unacceptable, but in the 92 years since its inception, social aspirations have changed vastly, especially for girls and women.
Right now, those who marry at 16 and 17 are at increased risk of leaving education early, reduced employment prospects, social exclusion, complications in pregnancy and domestic violence. Children must be in education until they are 18, encouraged to attend university or start apprenticeships so they can live full and independent lives.
It is because of this that Payzee Mahmod, campaigner and child marriage survivor, and MP Pauline Latham are campaigning tirelessly to end child marriage practices in the UK – and why the Marriage and Civil Partnership (Minimum Age) Bill is essential to close those loopholes which are often used as a mechanism for abuse.
As a child marriage survivor, Payzee knows the implications of the current marriage laws all too well. Here, she tells her story:
‘I was stood in the garden in our family home in South London, dressed in a puffy, frumpy wedding dress that I would never have chosen if it had been up to me. But none of it was up to me, it was happening to me. I was just 16, a child, and I being coerced into marrying a man twice my age who I didn’t know, in a religious ceremony.
Payzee Mahmod aged 16. ©Payzee Mahmod
‘I didn’t even understand what marriage meant for me, but I knew that I didn’t want it. I wanted to continue my education and pursue my own dreams, I wanted to go to university and be a psychologist. But none of the adults in my life who I thought should have safeguarded me -including my parents, teachers and GP – even questioned it.
‘As soon as the religious marriage happened, that was it; I was married in the eyes of everyone I knew and all of the weight of the expectations on a wife fell on my shoulders. Suddenly, as a child, I was expected to become a mother and soon faced a forced pregnancy.
Despite my young appearance, the registrar didn’t even question it.
‘Some weeks later, just as a formality, my child marriage was registered at a registry office. Despite my young appearance and how clear the huge age gap was, the registrar didn’t even question it.
‘I wasn’t the first in my family to fall victim to child marriage. That same year, my 17-year-old sister Banaz, had already become a child bride. Just a few years later, because Banaz bravely left her abusive child marriage, she was tragically murdered in a so-called ‘honour’ killing.
‘Twenty years on from experiencing the trauma of being a child bride, I was shocked to learn that child marriage is still not a crime in the UK and that it’s happening more often than you might think. According to the latest statistics from the Office of National Statistics, in the last ten years over three thousand marriages involving children aged 16 and 17 were registered in England and Wales. Last year, a quarter of the cases that the Forced Marriage Unit dealt with involved children.
‘That’s why I joined IKWRO Women’s Rights Organisation, a charity that supports girls at risk of child marriage and are Co-chairs of Girls Not Brides UK, to campaign for a change in the law.
‘And that’s how I met Pauline Latham OBE MP, who has been tirelessly campaigning to ban child marriage for many years. We are at a critical moment in our campaign, with Pauline’s Marriage and Civil Partnership (Minimum Age) Bill coming up for its second reading on November 19. The change in the law should safeguard every child from all forms of child marriage.’
What is the Marriage and Civil Partnership Minimum Age Bill?
Pauline knows Payzee’s story is a devastating but important reminder of the tragedies which take place – entirely legally – in this country. Young girls and boys who are victims of child marriage are often taken out of education and have their futures stolen from them.
This Bill aims to create a blanket ban on marriages – religious or civil – involving anyone under the age of 18. We know from Payzee’s story that simply setting the age of civil marriage at 18 would not have protected her – and so it is crucial that the Bill covers religious marriages too.
Child marriage cost Payzee’s sister her life and devastated hers. To this day she continues to live with the consequences, and healing will be a lifelong journey. Since speaking out, many girls have reached out to us about their own experiences of being coerced into child marriage, right here in the UK. That is why we are fighting to end child marriage and the abuse that so often goes along with it.
To find out more about Payzee’s campaigning work here, and** sign the petition to end child marriage here. **
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