MPs have brought the nation “the closest we’ve ever got to ending child marriage” after backing plans to end the practice in England and Wales, a charity has said.
Children as young as seven are at risk of child marriage and it is cause for “huge celebration” that MPs supported a private members bill on Friday, said Natasha Rattu, executive director of Karma Nirvana.
The Marriage and Civil Partnership (Minimum Age) Bill, which was given an unopposed second reading, would raise the minimum age of marriage and civil partnership from 16 to 18 in England and Wales.
It would make it an offence, punishable with up to seven years’ imprisonment, to carry out “any conduct for the purpose of causing a child to enter into a marriage”.
It would also make it easier to prosecute parents or family members who send under-18s abroad to be wed.
Karma Nirvana, which supports victims of honour-based abuse, said it has responded to four cases of child marriage in the last week, calling Friday’s debate a “watershed moment for change and better protection”.
— Karma Nirvana (@KNFMHBV) November 19, 2021
Ms Rattu told the PA news agency: “We’re absolutely delighted.
“It’s a campaign that’s been 10 years in the running and to get this far is incredible, we’re over the moon.”
The charity director said child marriage is a “real hidden problem” that has become further obscured by the coronavirus pandemic, with children less visible to professionals during the lockdowns.
Many victims only feel able to come forward at a late stage as adults, which makes it hard to know the full scale of the problem, and Ms Rattu believes official statistics reveal just a fraction of the reality.
The charity responded to 76 known cases of child marriage in the year to September 2021, down from more than 130 in the previous 12 months.
Call logs from the helpline it runs, first shared with Sky news, reveal that one girl was concerned that her seven-year-old sister would be “married off” because of the shame she was said to have brought on her family.
Asked if she believes there are other children of a similar age who are at risk in the UK, Ms Rattu told PA: “Absolutely. I don’t think that’s an isolated case. I just think that they are even more hidden than the children that are a bit older.”
So proud to support my friend @Pauline_Latham ahead of the Second Reading of the Marriage and Civil Partnership (Minimum Age Bill) today.
Child marriage is child abuse and it’s time we put an end to it. pic.twitter.com/f3pQxas4At
— Sajid Javid (@sajidjavid) November 19, 2021
She continued: “The stories are just so harrowing and they have an impact as well as on the call handlers who take those calls, because we’re talking about the most vulnerable in society that are unable to protect themselves.
“And professionals don’t always have the tools either to protect them, so this law is absolutely vital to changing that, ensuring that we get less protection, we get better identification, and I think hand in hand we’ll have better recording as well that will follow.”
Conservative MP Pauline Latham, who sponsored the bill, says it will “protect young boys and girls at risk of entering into marriages at 16 or even younger, ensuring they stay in education and have the best chance in life”.
She added that it will help the UK “live up to its international obligations by banning child marriage in all its forms and allows us to take that message to the rest of the world”.
It was originally meant to be proposed by Health Secretary Sajid Javid, who tweeted that he was “so proud to support my friend”, adding: “Child marriage is child abuse and it’s time we put an end to it”.
Dr Faith Mwangi-Powell, chief executive of the global Girls Not Brides coalition, said: “Laws and policies are essential in preventing child marriage, but we also need to change the attitudes that make child marriage acceptable in the first place.
“Twelve million girls get married as children every year, worldwide.
“Today’s success is a clear step towards making sure that girls in the UK are able to choose their own futures, and we could not be prouder of our members’ tireless efforts to make this country a better place where every girl can thrive.”