The UK government is failing to meet its international human rights commitments by allowing people aged 16 and 17 to get married, a Conservative MP has claimed.
MP Pauline Latham yesterday (May 15) at a Westminster Hall debate called for the minimum age for marriage and civil partnership to be raised to 18.
The Mid Derbyshire MP said that existing UK laws are “out of sync with other western countries and ignore the advice of the international human rights convention on this issue”.
“British law should act as a gold standard internationally and reverberate around the world,” Ms Latham added.
“The international human rights conventions on women’s rights and on children say that countries should end the practice of enabling child marriage below 18,” she said.
“The UK is violating those commitments.”
If married children drop out of school and fail to finish educational training they can subsequently be locked into a cycle of poverty
Pauline Latham, MP for Mid Derbyshire
“There are a number of negative consequences from marrying at 16 or 17,” she added.
Ms Latham cited Human Rights Watch research showing that children who marry are at higher risk of domestic violence when compared to married adult women.
Child marriage is often linked to leaving education early, limited vocational and career opportunities and serious physical and mental health problems, she added.
She said: “If married children drop out of school and fail to finish educational training they can subsequently be locked into a cycle of poverty”
What is Child Marriage?
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Child marriage is defined by UNICEF as a formal marriage or informal union before age 18. Both forced marriage and child marriage are illegal in the UK (apart from consenting children aged 16 and over).
Forced marriage became a criminal offence in the UK under the Anti-Social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Act 2014. Forcing someone to marry can result in a sentence of up to 7 years in prison. The offence includes taking someone overseas to force them to marry.
It is also illegal for a child under the age of 16 to marry in the UK. In England, Wales and Northern Ireland, under-18s wanting to get married need permission from their parents or guardians.
Child Marriage Is Illegal But Does It Violate Human Rights?
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Article 16 of the United Nation’s 1979 Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women says:
“The betrothal and the marriage of a child shall have no legal effect, and all necessary action, including legislation, shall be taken to specify a minimum age for marriage and to make the registration of marriages in an official registry compulsory.”
The UN’s 1962 Convention on Consent to Marriage commits signatories to “eliminating completely child marriages and the betrothal of young girls before the age of puberty.”
Article 16(2) of the Universal Declaration on Human Rights (UDHR) says: “marriage shall be entered into only with the free and full consent of the intending spouses.”
The Human Rights Convention translates the UDHR into enforceable human rights in Europe. Article 12 expresses the right to marry and found a family. It says that: “men and women of marriageable age have the right to marry and to found a family, according to the national laws governing the exercise of that right.”
Marriage shall be entered into only with the free and full consent of the intending spouses.
Article 16(2), Universal Declaration of Human Rights
Although it does not mention the need for the consent of the intending spouses like the UDHR does, British judges have interpreted the Article to mean that there is a right ‘not to marry’. This means that forcing someone into marriage violates their human right not to marry under Article 12 of the ECHR.
Responding to Ms Latham, the Under-Secretary of State for Justice Paul Maynard MP said there is no “clear consensus” among western nations around the age at which two people can legally get married – known as the age of majority.
He said: “Marriage will always be one of our most important institutions – but only where consenting parties enter of their own free will and free choice.”
“There can be no doubt it is a serious violation to be deprived of martial autonomy and the cost this can have on victims of any age and gender is abundantly clear.
He said that the government has launched a forced marriage public consultation, which seeks views on issues such as a mandatory duty on certain professionals to report forced marriage .
“We will be looking at whether there is any link at all between parents giving consent to marry and instances of forced marriage.
“It operates alongside the work of registration officers who are trained to spot the signs of forced marriage.”
He highlighted that only 179 under-18s entered into an opposite-sex marriage in 2016/17, down from 424 in 2006.
“I would be fascinated to see any research on the reasons for marriage of those 179,” he added.
“Then we’re not speculating about who these 179 are. It might help us identify the extent to which forced marriage is a component [of that 179].”
He added that there are multiple factors which give rise to forced marriage and that raising the minimum age of marriage would not necessarily address them.