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Questioning the minimum age for marriage


Baroness Jenny Tongue, Bill, House of Lords, official legal age for marriage, child marriage, teenage pregnancy, forced marriage, The impact of getting married at a young age is the same no matter in which country you live.

Although the risks vary.

But girls are at risk of dropping out of school, of sexual activity often without consent or contraception, and the myriad of health-related consequences that can accompany teenage pregnancy.

And to some, the phrase “child marriage” conjures up images of a very young girl, living in the developing world, getting married to a much older man.

This happens, but in reality, child marriage is more complex than that and it cuts across all regions, religions and cultures.

It’s a global problem and it happens in the United Kingdom too.

Although the official legal age for marriage in England, Wales and Northern Ireland is 18, children can marry from 16 with parental consent. In Scotland, the legal age for marriage is 16.

And in some communities in the UK this can result in forced child marriage whereby parents can consent on behalf of their children.

The Home Office estimates that between 5,000 and 8,000 people are at risk of being forced into marriage every year in the UK.

In 2013, the UK Forced Marriage Unit’s helpline (020 7008 0151) dealt with 1,302 cases of forced marriage; 40 per cent of the calls received concerned minors.

A very large majority of low and middle-income countries have in fact established minimum ages of marriage at 18, in line with international commitments such as the Convention on the Rights of the Child.

The Marriage and Civil Partnership (Minimum Age) Bill received its second reading in the House of Lords on 21 October 2016.

It seeks to raise the minimum age of consent to marriage or civil partnership in the UK from 16 to 18.

The Bill proposes that the parental consent clause be removed from the law so that 18 is the only legal age for marriage and civil partnership.

It also seeks to amend the Anti-social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Act 2014 so as to create an offence of “causing” a person under the age of 18 to enter into a marriage or civil partnership.

To read the Bill, as it was introduced, click here.

This is a private member’s bill introduced by former Liberal Democrat MP Baroness Jenny Tonge.

In 1967, the House of Commons Report of the Committee on the Age of Majority considered three proposals.

These were: raising the minimum age of marriage to 18 for both sexes; having a different minimum age for males and females; or leaving it at 16.

Upon hearing arguments in favour of increasing the minimum age to 18, the report said: ‘One point which greatly interested us was the fact that a large number of young people themselves expressed the view that marriage should not be allowed under 18.’

In relation to arguments in favour of leaving the minimum age at 16, the report said: ‘We consider it essential that the minimum age for marriage and the age of consent to sexual intercourse should be the same.

‘If both were raised to 18 it would create thousands of young criminals and would not be likely to stop sexual intercourse in the 16 to 18 age group.

‘Since the law could not be enforced and it is difficult to see what penalties could be imposed (prison? fine? “tut-tut”?), the law would be brought into disrepute.

‘If the age of consent remained at 16 while the marriage age was raised to 18, it would appear as an encouragement to illicit sexual intercourse, and in either case the present number of illegitimate children would be greatly increased.

The Committee members, in conclusion, were “unanimously of the opinion that the age of consent to sexual intercourse, together with the minimum age for marriage, should remain at 16 for both sexes”.

But the UK’s Department for International Development (DFID) recently invested £36 million into a project to accelerate action to end child marriage in 12 high prevalence countries.

Marrying young is linked to a raft of negative outcomes: less education, more poverty, and health problems that include domestic violence, risky adolescent pregnancies, and death of the mother during delivery.

And in Bangladesh, which has the second highest absolute numbers of child marriage in the world – just under 4 million – lobbyists are said to be using the current UK law as an example of why the legal age of marriage there should be lowered.

If you are at risk, or have been affected by child marriage, call the Karma Nirvana helpline on 0800 5999247.

If you are being threatened, call the police on 999.

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