Freedom United community powers open letter urging U.K. to ban child marriage

Campaigners and charities in the U.K. have signed an open letter urging the government to criminalize child marriage and remove a legal exception that allows 16 and 17-year olds to marry with parental consent, allowing the “thriving” issue of forced child marriage to persist.

More than 20 organizations signed the letter to Prime Minister Boris Johnson coordinated by our partners Girls Not Brides U.K. co-chairs IKWRO, Karma Nirvana, Forward and Independent Yemen Group. The letter is bolstered by the Freedom United community’s action with more than 185,000 signatures on the petition spearheaded by Payzee Mahmod.

In England and Wales, 16- and 17-year-olds can legally marry with parental consent, a legal exception which leaves the door open for coercion and forced marriage; meanwhile, religious or customary child marriages are currently legal at any age.

Describing the issue as “invisible,” the signatories argue that child marriage is overlooked in the U.K. because it is viewed as a phenomenon that only exists in other parts of the world.

In fact, more than a quarter of the U.K. forced marriage cases officially registered in 2019 involved minors, and Karma Nirvana said its hotline has responded to more than a thousand child marriage reports since 2015.

In order to fully protect children from forced marriage, campaigners argue that the U.K. government should raise the minimum age of marriage to 18—with no exceptions.

The Guardian reports:

The letter from frontline organisations working to protect women and children explained: “Existing forced marriage law does not automatically protect children from child marriage on account of their age.

“Unacceptably the onus is on the child to secure their own protection under forced marriage law by speaking out against their own family and community which can have dangerous consequences and [which] understandably many children are too terrified to do.”

Payzee Mahmod said that the pandemic may have worsened the situation in the U.K. by pushing it further underground.

Mahmod—who was coerced into marrying a man nearly twice her age at 16 and whose sister, Banaz, was murdered in a so-called “honour killing” after her own forced marriage—said a ban was essential to allow young women to focus on education and follow their dreams.

“Child marriage is a hidden crime, yet it is very much a live issue here in Britain and one of the most harmful things any child can go through. Girls are raped on their wedding nights by older men and it is common for them to have forced pregnancies – something my sister and I both experienced.

“Given this issue has now been brought directly to the prime minister’s attention there should be no ‘ifs’ or ‘buts’ – it is a straightforward safeguarding issue.”

The open letter and Freedom United’s campaign have gathered some support in parliament, with Pauline Latham MP strongly backing a bill to criminalize child marriage; Latham has reportedly written to the Prime Minister Boris Johnson separately.

Help us give the letter even more weight and join the more than 185,000 people pushing for the U.K. to take action.

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