In the UK you cannot vote until you are 18, and you cannot get a tattoo either, but you can get married… In this week’s episode of the HJ Talks About Abuse podcast, Sam and I discuss Child Marriage.
“Child marriage” which is defined internationally as marriage under 18 – remains legal in Britain. In England, Wales and Northern Ireland, teenagers can wed at 16 with parental consent. In Scotland, they do not need consent.
The UN has said that governments around the world should make it illegal for children to get married. The age at which you can get married should be set at 18.
The reason being is that children and young people are being exploited and sexually abused through sham, forced and “arranged” marriages.
Nearly 2,000 young people in Britain, the vast majority of them girls, were wed before the age of 18 between 2010 and 2015, according to official data.
Although the numbers are low, campaigners believe most are pressured into marriage by their families. If the minimum age was raised, girls would be more empowered to say no, and society would accept it as the norm.
The impact of getting married young is similar wherever girls live. The consequences can be physical, psychological and practical. They are more likely to drop out of school and at a greater risk of marital rape, domestic abuse and health problems relating to teenage pregnancy.
The minimum age of 16 was set in 1929 when living together or falling pregnant out of wedlock was socially unacceptable. But campaigners fear that the “parental consent” clause for under 18s has now become an “open door” to forced marriage. The APPG at Westminster will hopefully take this up with the UK government.
Campaigners say it is time that Britain – which has been vocal about ending child marriage in developing countries – got its own laws in order. The UK could be breaching its international legal obligations for example, the Convention of the Rights of the Child.
The UK parliament needs to decide how to define a child. Should it be as an individual under the age of 18, without exception? There is a powerful argument that the answer should be “yes”.
It is important that children are recognised in the law as being children and that they are accorded the full protection of the law. Laws that set a minimum age of marriage are an important way to safeguard boys and girls from being married before they are 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. Why allow children to marry at an age when, for example, they do not have the right to vote or enter into other contracts recognised in law? The most widely accepted definition for a child is 18, in line with the Convention on the Rights of the Child.
A minimum age of marriage of 18 will also help to ensure that children are able to give their free and full consent to marry and have the minimum level of maturity needed before marrying.