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UK MPs call on government to act decisively to stop child marriage

Source: Thomson Reuters Foundation - Thu, 29 Nov 2012 14:37 GMT
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LONDON (TrustLaw) - “I would never have thought, being a British born and bred subject… that I would one day (as a teenager)… be told I would be going abroad under the guise of a family holiday and be forced into a marriage to a boy who was a child himself.”

These words came from a young woman who spoke this week at the launch of a report by the All Party Parliamentary Group on Population, Development and Reproductive Health (APPG) on the global scourge of child marriage.

Eventually, she was saved by the intervention of a male relative but said that “the years that followed only brought further pain and anguish while I tried to rebuild my relationship with my family and tried to live a more positive…life.”

After a hearing this summer, with testimony from child marriage victims in the UK and national and global non-governmental organisations, the cross-party group has urged the government to act more decisively, both in Britain and abroad, to stop child marriage, a practice that affects 10 million girls around the world every year.

The United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) said last month that on present trends, more than 14 million girls a year could be victims of child marriage in the decade to 2020.

Among its recommendations, the parliamentary group called for a rise in the legal age of marriage to 18 across the UK.

“In this country … we allow people to be married from the age of 16 provide that parents give consent,” said Baroness Jenny Tonge, who chairs the group. “Now we have to try and change this because of course the parents give consent when there is an arranged marriage, maybe for money.”

The group also called on the government to legislate for the compulsory registration of religious marriages.

The report said that Britain’s official attitude to child and forced marriage has focused on cases where girls are taken abroad to be married, but that many children are married in the UK in religious ceremonies and such unions do not have to be registered.

It has proved very hard to discover the exact number of children being forced into marriage in Britain but there is “increasing evidence of child marriage happening in the UK and in other developed countries,” the report said.

The government estimates that there are at least 8,000 forced marriages or threats of forced marriage per year in Britain.

“Child marriage is usually forced marriage, although…some may want to marry the partner of their parents’ or their own choice,” Tonge wrote in the foreword to the report.

Nearly 30 percent of calls received this year by the helpline of the UK Forced Marriage Unit (FMU) – a body established by the government in 2002 to support victims of forced marriage – involved minors, and 14 percent concerned children younger than 15, the youngest being 5 years old, the report said.

Raising awareness of child marriage across the board – in the police, among teachers and health workers as well as in government institutions – is paramount to tackling the problem,  Tonge said.

“We have got to enforce, we have got to make sure that teachers and health professionals and the police know that this is going on, and that the border agency knows that this is going on and they look out - particularly in the school holidays.”

The report also recommended implementing the statutory guidance on forced marriage, after evidence showed professionals hesitated to tackle cases of child marriage due to fears of appearing racist because they would be challenging religious practices.

The UK government has announced plans to make forced marriage a criminal, rather than a civil, offence by next year. This would help authorities’ efforts to end child marriage because many child marriages are forced marriages.  

“What we really need is some prosecutions, because once we’ve had some high profile prosecutions then people get a bit wary of doing it,” Tonge said.

To read the full report and the complete list of recommendations click here.

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