Former Home Secretary Sajid Javid has recently introduced a private member’s bill that would raise the minimum age of marriage to 18 in England and Wales, with no exceptions. The government is reportedly committed to enacting it. If bill becomes law, marriage under the age of 18 will be illegal.
Existing law, which allows 16- and 17-year-olds to marry if they have parental consent, was intended to allow consenting young couples to marry if they had family support for it. But Javid and others believe that parents in some UK communities—mainly Bangladeshi and Pakistani ones—have taken advantage of this provision to engage in the cultural practice of child marriage, in which parents give their daughters in marriage to men who are usually far older than themselves, and the daughters typically have no say in the matter. Sajid Javed has described his experience of witnessing such a marriage when he was a boy. The British government’s support for the new bill shows that it is finally making efforts to curb this practice that has long been hidden in plain sight.
Child marriage is illegal in the UK, but that means only that it is impossible for children to be legally married here. Partly because UK law protects religious freedom, there is unfortunately no legal prohibition against performing religious or customary marriage ceremonies involving children of any age—and some religions teach that parents have the right to marry off their daughters at any time after their periods have started. There are currently no UK laws prohibiting religious communities from running private legal systems (such as sharia courts or other religious courts or councils), in which only members of those communities participate. Although their decisions are not enforceable under UK law, they are enforced very effectively through informal means: community religious beliefs, cultural norms, threats of ostracism and violence. (Similarly, even though polygamous marriage is illegal under UK law, polygamous marriage practices exist in the UK because they are permitted by Muslim religious doctrine.)
So, while the new law will undoubtedly be a victory for anti-child-marriage campaigners such as Payzee Malik, Karma Nirvana, the Girls Not Brides organisation and others who have worked tirelessly to raise awareness about the prevalence of this practice in the UK—it is unlikely to stop religiously conservative parents from marrying off their underage daughters.
A related problem is that many of these child marriages—and other marriages in these communities—are not only arranged but coerced by the parents. Although coercing someone into marriage is a criminal offense in the UK, carrying a maximum sentence of seven years, an increasing number of families here have been coercing underage girls and vulnerable women into marriage or forcing them to stay with abusive partners. The women in these forced marriages are essentially treated as slaves—indeed, many feel that the UK criminal law should formally allow evidence of that kind of treatment to be presented to show that someone is in an illegal forced marriage.
In some cases, UK parents dupe their daughters into travelling to Pakistan or another country in which forced marriage is easier, and force them into marriage there. For example, in 2018, a mother was found guilty of trafficking her daughter to be married in Pakistan. The mother had told her daughter she would rip up her passport if she refused to marry. And, in another case, a 22-year-old British woman sought help because, after being forced into a marriage in Pakistan, she was being coerced by her parents to work six days a week so she could earn the amount required to sponsor her Pakistani husband to come to the UK.
The UK’s Forced Marriage Unit (a joint service of the Home Office and Foreign Office) responds to reports of planned or actual forced marriages in which at least one party is a UK resident. In 2017, they dealt with nearly 1,200 cases. In 120 of these cases, both parties were UK residents, and the marriage took place in the UK; in the rest, either the forced marriage was intended to occur overseas, or one of the intended spouses resided overseas. There were 65 countries involved in these cases, with the highest numbers in Pakistan (439), followed by Bangladesh (129), Somalia (91) and India (82). A 2018 report by the Forced Marriage Unit also shows a staggering number of reported cases. However, it is thought that there are many more cases that go unreported, so these figures are unlikely to present a full picture of how prevalent the crime of forced marriage is in the UK.
A further problem is that private religious court systems tend to be explicitly discriminatory towards underage girls and women who are trapped in forced or abusive marriages, and UK law does not hold them accountable for these discriminatory practices. Since UK law doesn’t recognize these vulnerable girls and women as legally married, they are not eligible to seek protection under UK marriage and divorce law. Girls and women who attempt to escape a forced or abusive marriage are at particularly high risk of physical abuse—or even of murder by a family member, which is generally condoned by their communities (so-called honour killing). Thus, they often remain subject to physical and mental abuse for the rest of their lives.
These communities allow girls and women to ask the private religious courts or councils to recognise them as divorced, but women’s rights groups, such as Southall Black Sisters, have been raising public awareness of how discriminatory these private practices are, and how often women who are members of minority groups are subjected to them. According to Muslim custom, and the religious law of some Islamic sects, men can divorce their wives without resorting to any judge or authority—merely by saying the word talaaq (divorce) three times. Thus, it is not surprising that, according to an independent review by the UK government, a large percentage of those who seek divorce through a Sharia council are women. These women are simply going to the councils to obtain written proof that their husbands have divorced them. And, generally, that is the only relief they can expect to get—the courts cannot mandate child support or alimony.
Amra Bone, Britain’s first female Islamic judge, has denied that the councils discriminate against women and has defended polygamy: “Most men will tell you: I can’t look after one wife, never mind more than one. But we cannot—and the government cannot—ask Muslims not to have more than one wife. People have a right to decide for themselves.”
Bone’s attitude suggests that she believes government should not interfere in religious customs, no matter how high a price the victims pay for them, or how far below our usual standards of morality those customs fall.
In response to this kind of attitude, several groups, such as Southall Black Sisters, Juno Women’s Aid and One Law for All, have been advocating for a law that would require couples to enter into a civil marriage under UK law before any religious marriage ceremony is conducted, so that married women could seek relief from UK courts instead of being at the mercy of misogynistic private religious courts. Yet the influence of these toxic cultural and religious practices seems only to be increasing.
There is a need for more public education about the problem. In particular, more people need to become aware that it is not easy for terrified little girls to report the abuse they endure at the hands of their own family members. If your only means of enforcement is relying on young victims to speak out against their families, you render justice powerless.
It is difficult to know how many underaged girls have been forced into marriage under the radar, but it is clear that child marriage is prevalent across the UK. Yet UK authorities still seem hesitant to protect the children, young people and vulnerable women who are immersed in these minority religious cultures. The government has utterly failed to acknowledge the dangers that women face when they are pressured by families and religious authorities to stay in abusive or polygamous marriages, or when their religious marriages are religiously annulled and they are left without child support. The government’s impulse to appease highly conservative elements within those communities and to avoid offending religious sentiments has incontrovertibly become a barrier to justice.
The bill to raise the marriage age that Javid has presented is a solid, practical step forward. But it will be imperative to make sure that this law and all other available protective laws are enforced effectively across the board to counteract religious fundamentalism’s influence on communities and on the lives of their members. The practice of child marriage should be recognized as a criminal act and punished accordingly. And religious affiliations and sentiments should not be taken into account, because this issue is straightforwardly about the protection of girls and women.
Child marriage and forced marriage are menaces to society. There is no justification for robbing little girls of their childhood or trapping women in abusive marriages without legal protections. For many minority women and vulnerable children who remain at risk, Javid’s bill is be a step toward changing lives for the better. But no law combating child marriage will be effective as long as the legitimacy of sharia councils and other private religious courts remains unchallenged.