England and Wales raises minimum marriage age to 18 years

In England and Wales, a new law has taken effect raising the legal age of marriage to 18. Previously, 16 or 17-year-olds could marry with parental permission, and there was no law prohibiting ceremonies for younger children that were not registered with local councils. 

The new law also applies to ceremonies that are not legally binding. The government stated that the modifications would protect vulnerable kids from forced marriage. Previously, forced marriage was only illegal when threats or other forms of coercion were used under the Marriage and Civil Partnership (Minimum Age) Act, however, it is now illegal to force children to marry under any circumstances. The maximum sentence for this offence is seven years in prison.

The minimum age for marriage will remain 16 in Scotland and Northern Ireland, where the changes do not apply. In Northern Ireland, minors under 18 require parental consent, whereas this is not the case in Scotland. Ministers in Northern Ireland have previously stated that they intend to raise the minimum age of marriage to 18, but legislation cannot be introduced because the devolved government is currently inoperative.

Payzee Mahmod, a campaigner, is a survivor of child marriage, and her sister Banaz was murdered in a so-called "honour killing" after leaving her 17-year-old husband. She stated that the day the new law took effect in England and Wales was probably one of the most significant of her life. 

"It's very emotional for me because I know the harms of child marriage intimately," she told sources. 

She said that she's seen the devastating impacts that it can have for so many young women and girls as she and her sister have gone through it. Unfortunately, the ultimate penalty for someone who tries to leave the child marriage is death, this is what happened to Payzee Mahmod’s sister. Payzee stated that "the responsibility is no longer on the child to speak up against their parents or community when they are confronted with child marriage" as a result of the amendments.

In 2021, the government's Forced Marriage Unit assisted victims under the age of 18 in 118 cases. However, activists believe that official statistics do not reflect the true scope of the problem, as other victims may not have been able to seek assistance. 

Karma Nirvana, a charity that assists victims of forced marriage, anticipates that the new law will increase identification and reporting of child marriage. 

Director Natasha Rattu stated that it was a "huge step forward in combating this typically hidden abuse" and that it would provide greater protection for those at risk. However, Mihai Bica from the Roma Support Group expressed concern over how communities and those enforcing the new law would be informed of the changes.

He explained that in Roma communities, the term "married" could refer to a boyfriend-girlfriend relationship, and that "cultural misunderstanding" could have "serious consequences for families who should not be subject to this law." Mr. Bica called for staff training so that when assessing Roma families, they are not "influenced by existing stereotypes." Pauline Latham, a member of the Conservative Party, introduced a bill in the House of Representatives that included the amendments.