Children under the age of 18 in our country are not permitted to buy fireworks, get a tattoo or sign up for a credit card. The law recognises that 18 is the age of adulthood and protects those under that age from making decisions they cannot understand the gravity of.
What many people do not realise is that laws dating back to before the Second World War mean that child marriage is still legal in our country. Children aged over 16 can be legally married with their parents’ permission. In Scotland they do not even require parental consent.
In practice, these children are rarely lovestruck teens. They are overwhelmingly young women who have been coerced into marriage for cultural or religious reasons. I have seen this myself in the community where I grew up: young girls whose parents expected them to enter into a lifelong commitment with an older man long before they were ready with painful outcomes.
Let’s call this what it is: child abuse. No one pressures their 16-year-old into getting married for good reasons. On the contrary, young women describe how their parents tried to marry them off to older men in order to settle debts, strengthen family links and prevent them from being with “unsuitable” partners who they love — especially those of the same sex.
Child marriage is associated with appalling outcomes, including complications during pregnancy and childbirth, and a heightened risk of domestic, sexual and honour-based violence. Victims express regret that they never had the opportunity to complete their education, make informed choices about their future and reach their potential.
The Times has a proud record on fighting against child marriage, having campaigned to prevent underage British victims being forced to marry men from other countries for the purposes of immigration fraud. As home secretary, I worked to ensure that British citizens who had been forced to sponsor a spousal visa against their will could report their abuser anonymously and block their entry to the country.
But there is more to be done. Marriage is a major life decision that children are not ready to make. We must combat cultural norms within communities that celebrate child marriage and ensure our laws are fit for purpose. While the British government is working tirelessly to end child marriage in the developing world our own laws are permitting child marriage by the back door. When Bangladesh lowered the legal age of marriage from 18 to 16, the ministers there were said to have pointed to our laws to justify it.
We must legislate to close this loophole so that vulnerable children cannot be pushed into such serious and life-changing commitments before they are ready. That is why I will be following in the footsteps of my extraordinary colleague Pauline Latham, and introducing a private member’s bill to raise the legal age of marriage to 18 in England and Wales.
The government is listening and while they have not yet confirmed that they will be supporting my bill Robert Buckland, the justice secretary, wants to end the practice. That is why I am optimistic that we can work together with colleagues to combat child marriage. If this legislation is successful, I would urge Nicola Sturgeon to follow suit and ensure young people are protected from child marriage across the United Kingdom.
We have a moral duty to protect children and make sure that young people can fulfill their potential. Child marriage is child abuse and it is time we put an end to it.
Sajid Javid is MP for Bromsgrove