The age you can legally get married in England and Wales has just changed

hands of a just married couple with the wedding rings and bouquet
The legal age you can get married has just changedluana rigolli - Getty Images

A new law has come into force in the hopes of better protecting children in England and Wales against forced marriages. As such, the legal age has risen to 18 as of 27 February (whereas previously it was possible to be married at the age of 16 or 17 with parental permission). It's been a long time coming for various campaigners, such as forced marriage survivor Payzee Mahmod, the Girls Not Brides coalition, and MPs including Baroness Liz Sugg and Pauline Latham OBE.

Anybody found guilty of causing a child to marry (with or without force) before the age of 18 will now face up to 7 years in jail – a strong statement in the face of child marriages.

Responding to the official change in law, Latham told press, "This is a landmark day for the campaigners who have worked relentlessly for over 5 years to ban child marriage in this country.

"Child marriage destroys lives and through this legislation we will protect millions of boys and girls over the coming years from this scourge."

Also speaking about the new change in ruling, Minister for Safeguarding, Sarah Dines, said: "Forced marriage is an abuse of human rights which denies vulnerable children the freedom to learn, grow and thrive. Like all other forms of abuse, I’m committed to stamping out this exploitative practice.

"In addition to this welcome new legislation, we are also continuing to provide training and guidance to equip the police, social workers and other frontline professionals to support and safeguard victims."

In the UK, forced marriages typically see young girls coerced into marriage by their family, often in order to obtain a VISA for another person or as part of a financial trade-off. Sadly, it's also often associated with domestic abuse and sees young girls forced into leaving education early, having limited career choices and can lead to serious mental health implications.

In terms of figures and frequency, in 2021 the Government’s Forced Marriage Unit provided advice or support in 118 cases involving victims below 18 years of age. A spokesperson also told Cosmopolitan UK that the courts have issued 3,343 Forced Marriage Protection Orders between their introduction in 2008 and September 2022, which prevents someone from using threats, violence or emotional abuse as a way to force a person into marriage.

Further commenting on how widespread a problem child marriage is, Natasha Rattu, Director of Karma Nirvana (which is part of the Girls Not Brides Coalition), said the national Honour Based Abuse helpline supported 64 cases of child marriage last year, but that this represents "only a small picture of a much bigger problem". She praised the legal age of marriage increasing and added that the "change to legislation is a huge victory for survivors, it is a huge leap forward to tackling this usually hidden abuse and will provide a greater degree of protection to those at risk".

The Act will not change the legal age of marriage in Scotland or Northern Ireland, as it's a devolved matter, and it's important to remember that forced marriages are a global issue too, adds Anne Quesney, Senior Women's Rights Advocacy Advisor at ActionAid UK.

Whilst acknowledging the law change is a positive thing, Quesney also told Cosmopolitan UK that it must be implemented properly and that we "should not lose sight of the fact that this is also a global issue".

"We know from our own Girl-Led research that this is an issue across nearly every country we work in, from Ethiopia and Ghana to Bangladesh and Indonesia," she continued. "It's unacceptable that across the world many girls are still being denied their rights and futures, a reality sadly becoming more common as a result of the pandemic and cost of living crisis. Across the Horn of Africa, a devastating drought is putting more girls at risk as communities face severe economic hardship too.

"We are also concerned about reports from our partner in Syria that girls could be forced into child marriage against their will in the wake of last month's devastating earthquake. As the UK makes strides at home, we’re calling on the government to show global leadership to end child marriage."

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