England and Wales Raise the Minimum Marriage Age to 18
The legal age of marriage in England and Wales will rise to 18 as of today, generally considered to be the age at which they become adults and gain full citizenship rights. This is driven by campaigners to protect vulnerable children from forced marriage as previously you could get married at 16 or 17 with parental consent.
However, the changes will not apply to Northern Ireland and Scotland as the minimum age to get married remains at 16. Parental consent will still be required in Northern Ireland for those under 18 but is not required in Scotland, where Gretna Green just over the Scottish border has long been a destination for elopers.
As the devolved Northern Irish government is not currently functioning, legislation for increasing the minimum marriage age to 18 cannot be brought forward by ministers, but it is expected to follow the English lead.
The Marriage and Civil Partnership (Minimum Age) Act 2022, which gained Royal Assent in April 2022, has started today on the 27th February. The new ruling means that 16 and 17 years old can not marry or enter a civil partnership, even if they have been given consent from their parents.
It was previously legal for 16 or 17-year-olds to get married with parental consent, and there was no law against such ceremonies for younger children.
Under 18’s now can not be coerced or forced to get married as it’s now illegal and a criminal offence. As part of the government’s continued commitment to tackling violence against women and girls, this change will crack down on forced marriages, which can permanently harm a child.
The people who are found guilty of arranging marriages for children under the age of 18 will face up to 7 years in prison.
Child marriage is often associated with physical and mental abuse towards girls, early education leaving, and limited career opportunities. Changing the law honours the government’s commitment to ending child marriage by 2030 as pledged to the United Nations.
Campaigners proud to see the new rule change
Payzee Mahmod is a survivor of child marriage and her sister Banaz, who had been forced to marry at the age of 17, was killed in a so-called honour killing after leaving her spouse.
She mentioned that seeing the new English and Welsh law come into force on the 27th February was one of the most important days of her life. For Payze, she knows how, in great detail, traumatising child marriage can be.
She had gone through so much and so had her sister and she knows how badly it can impact many women and girls.
She stated that “When they try to leave child marriages, the ultimate penalty is death and this is exactly what happened in my sister’s case.”
Payzee feels that the changes would mean no children would feel the need to speak up against their parents or community when they are forced to get married.
118 cases involving victims under 18 were handled by the government’s Forced Marriage Unit in 2021.
However, according to campaigners, the actual problem may have been underestimated because other victims were unable to reach out for help.
Cultural misunderstanding in some communities
Karma Nirvana, a charity that supports forced marriage victims, hope that the new law will increase reporting of child marriages and identification. Their director Natasha Rattu believes that it is a huge step forward in protecting younger children who suffer from the usually hidden abuse.
Justice Secretary Dominic Raab said that those who try to manipulate children into marrying underage will now face the full force of the law.
On the other hand, Mihai Bica, who is part of the Roma Support Group, voices his concern about how the changes would be explained to the communities and the people enforcing the new law.
He is worried that wider communities would not understand that couples in the Roma communities are called ‘married’ if they are boyfriend and girlfriend. This ‘cultural misunderstanding’ could potentially result in serious problems for families who should be subject to the new law.
It is imperative that Roma families are assessed without “being influenced by the existing stereotypes,” according to Mr Bica.
The change of the new law was introduced through the Private Member’s Bill brought to Parliament by Pauline Latham OBE MP and was supported by multiple campaign organisations within the Girls Not Brides Coalition. Their focus is to end child marriage and abuse based on honouring the family.
What is the legal age to marry in the UK?
As of February 27th 2023 you can legally marry in England and Wales and 18 and over, and at 16 and over in Scotland and Northern Ireland.