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Child Marriage May Be Tradition: But It is Also Abuse

With great relief at MEWSo, we welcome and celebrate the fact that Britain will soon be a place where child marriage is a criminal offence.

A new marriage and civil partnership law that will raise the minimum age of marriage to 18, is a step closer, and it will make ‘any conduct causing’ anyone younger than 18 to marry a crime.

Let us be clear of what we are talking about here. Child marriages essentially are young girls of 13, 14, 15, 16, 17 years of age, being forced by their family to marry. Often the future husband is many years, sometimes decades, older than them. It is through religious and cultural marriages, like the Nikah, the Islamic marriage ceremony, that children can still be married off in this way.

It may surprise many that such child marriages are not already illegal in Britain. Essentially they are. Child marriages are forced marriages and Britain banned forced marriages back in 2014. However, there are loopholes.

Children of 16 and 17 can be married with the permission of their parents. But, asking a young girl to prove she is being forced to marry, lays the full weight of responsibility onto her young shoulders: an extremely tough thing to ask of her when it means going up against her parents and maybe putting her life in danger.

Also unregistered, religious marriages are passively allowed in the UK. They are not recognised in British law but they are considered legal by those who practise that religion. It’s part of some communities culture and tradition. If child marriages take place within unregistered, religious ceremonies, they can slip under the radar of the authorities.

In the UK in 2021, Karma Nirvana, a sister organisation that specifically tackles so-called ‘honour’ based abuses, supported 78 children facing the threat of forced marriage. Most were 16 and 17 year olds, but three were children under 10, one of which was seven years old. Most of these children were of British Pakistani heritage, but others were Kurdish, Romanian, Turkish and Afghani children born or living in the UK. (The Guardian: ‘England and Wales “one step closer to ending child marriage” after MP vote’ by Karen McVeigh, 19 Nov, 2021.)

For far too long, religion, culture, tradition and custom have been used as excuses to continue to allow the abuses of children and women in direct contravention to human rights law and often the law of the land.

It happened with forced marriages, FGM (female genital mutilation), virginity tests and all kinds of gender-based abuses. Allowing activities, seen as abusive by wider society, to continue within ethnic minority communities simply because it’s seen as part of their religion, culture and tradition, has created a two-tier system of law and human rights which allows these abuses to carry on unchallenged.

At least soon, on the issue of child marriages, whatever the religion, tradition or custom, it will no longer be tolerated. It’s hoped, the new law will also make it impossible for British men to go abroad to marry a child bride and bring her back to the UK, as he is likely to be prosecuted.

And, government agencies, like social services, health professionals and the police, will also have greater responsibilities to protect and safeguard ALL children, no matter what their ethnic or cultural heritage might be.

It is absolutely right that we challenge religious dogma, tradition and culture that insists on perpetrating harm on others. Murder is not tolerated, whomever commits it, and neither should we tolerate child and gender-based abuses because it’s part of someones tradition. The fact that it has been happening in some cultures for centuries is no excuse. We no longer live in the Middle Ages!

We must all be protected under one law and all be able to enjoy the freedoms afforded us living in the UK.

Halaleh Taheri,

Founder and Executive Director of MEWSo

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