Children as young as seven at risk of child marriage in UK, campaigners warn | UK News


There are fears that children as young as seven are at risk of child marriage, according to a leading charity.

Sky News has been given access to call logs held by the Yorkshire-based charity Karma Nirvana.

They’ve spoken of their shock when a call came through from a health professional who told an operator: “A sibling is concerned that, because of the shame she has been told she has brought on her family, her seven-year-old sister may be married off.”

Natasha Rattu said many of these issues happen in minority communities

Natasha Rattu, executive director of Karma Nirvana, which supports victims of honour-based abuse and forced marriage, said: “Not much shocks us in the Karma Nirvana team because we hear of some of the most harrowing cases. But to think during a pandemic there’s a seven-year-old girl that’s at risk of a marriage – it’s truly horrifying.”

We’ve also spoken to a member of the travelling community who claims she’s aware of 14 and 15-year-old girls being given blessings by priests in the past year – an insight into the power of ceremonies held within different communities which, whilst not legally-recognised marriages, leaves children trapped because they are seen as having made the same commitment as any other wedding.

A bill is being presented to parliament to raise the age of marriage in England and Wales from 16 with parental consent to 18 and make coercing children into marriage a criminal offence rather than putting the onus on the child to raise the alarm.

Campaigners say child marriage is not just a third world problem but happening in Britain.

Ms Rattu said: “If they were to have a religious marriage – which we see happen very often under the age of 16 – there is no consequence to that in our law as it stands.

“There is no ramification unless that seven-year-old was to say ‘I’m a victim of forced marriage’ and I don’t think there’s many seven-year-olds that would have that level of confidence and even recognise that this is abuse.”

Sky News has been given access to call logs held by the Yorkshire-based charity Karma Nirvana.
Sky News has been given access to call logs held by the Yorkshire-based charity Karma Nirvana

The logs shared with us by Karama Nirvana are for the 12 months up to September.

Other referrals include a social worker who told an operator: “The eldest daughter is 14 years old. This year they took her to Pakistan to get married. The 14-year-old is adamant that she wanted to marry.”

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And a call for help came from someone who said about a family member: “She became engaged when she was 12 years old and then had a religious marriage just after turning 15.”

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Ms Rattu said: “Many of these issues happen in minority communities. We find professionals are quite fearful to tackle these issues and there’s a degree of normalisation as well.”

Bridget Wall, now 26, said she married at 16 and – whilst with parental consent it was legal – she feels she was too young.

Ms Wall, who said she is trying to raise awareness about child marriage, has made TikTok videos which have been viewed millions of times.

Bridget Wall married when she was 16
Bridget Wall was married when she was 16

She said she was a child when she got married at 16 and is now separated. She said: “You’re too vulnerable and it should be illegal.

“It seemed so normal to get married at that age. When you’re married from the travelling community at 16 that’s when you’re considered an adult.”

But she told us she has concerns even a change in the law won’t save some girls from community ceremonies because traditions run so deep.

She said: “I’m aware of a few stories of 14 and 15-year-old girls having a blessing. When she is with that boy at 14 or 15 because it’s not legal they go to a priest and get blessed and basically they think it’s fine because they have a blessing.

“They have to live together but she can’t come home because she’s slept with this boy and no one else will have her and if she comes home she’s an embarrassment to her family.”

Bridget Wall said she has concerns even a change in the law won't save some girls from community ceremonies because traditions run so deep
Ms Wall said she has concerns even a change in the law won’t save some girls from community ceremonies because traditions run so deep

Traveller Movement chief executive Yvonne MacNamara said her organisation “agrees in principle with raising the minimum age of marriage, but there are significant concerns around criminalisation”.

She said criminalisation tends to drive problems underground and said there has not been enough consultation with affected communities about the proposed bill.

“The traveller movement is concerned that any moves to criminalise underage marriage is likely to have the perverse, if unintended, consequence of increasing the number of children – particular European Roma and traveller children – being taken into care,” she added.

Bridget Wall feels she was too young when she married
Bridget Wall feels she was too young when she married

Mihai Calin Bica, of the Roma Support Group, said criminalising early marriage “without even a decent attempt to engage with us and educate us would just materialise in another form of oppression against the Roma communities”.

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The MP Pauline Latham, who is sponsoring the private members’ bill, told Sky News: “I’ve been working on this for about four years. The whole motivation is mainly young girls who cannot sign any documents legally – because they’re not of age – are being coerced into marriage. And sometimes being taken out of the country but not always.

“They are being married in this country – sometimes with a civil ceremony – but sometimes just a religious ceremony. When you think the law that allowed this to happen was in 1929 and hasn’t been changed since.

“Now you have to stay in education or training until you’re 18 and it seems a complete anomaly to allow children to get married with all that that entails – it’s just nonsensical.

“What I’m not trying to do is stop sex because you can’t stop that and never will. I’m just trying to save these young people from ruining their lives really when there are lots of opportunities out there for them.

“It’s barbaric what’s happening, I think. It really needs to change completely so that children are no longer able to get married. It’s a ridiculous situation to be in. Because at 16 you’re not going to go against your parents because you’re still so dependent on them. At 18 it’s much easier to cope with standing up to your parents and say ‘no this isn’t what I want’.”

Ms Latham believes she has cross-party support.

But we’ve spoken to one community voice opposed to raising the effective age of marriage to 18.

West Yorkshire councillor Habiban Zaman said she doesn't support the bill
West Yorkshire councillor Habiban Zaman said she doesn’t support the bill

West Yorkshire councillor Habiban Zaman works on women’s issues in her community of Batley. She told us she doesn’t support the bill.

She said: “I don’t see why we should impose that they can’t get married (at 16).”

Whilst she says she doesn’t encourage getting married at 16, girls are more confident and assertive than they were 10 years ago.

She said: “In my experience I don’t see that as an issue getting married at 16. If it’s the young person’s choice I don’t see why we need to raise that to 18. If they feel they are mature enough and old enough to take that responsibility that the couple will have towards each other and making a life together I don’t see why we need to raise that to 18.”

Ms Zaman told us it would be concerning if there were community religious marriage ceremonies taking place involving girls younger than 16 though she is not aware of any.

She said: “I think the communities we’re talking about are well aware of their social responsibility towards these young people and I believe if anybody younger than 16 came to any of the scholars they would guide them in the right way.

“From many of the scholars I know, they would sit down and explain the rights and responsibilities of entering that ceremony or that contract and maybe try and talk them out of it if they feel that’s not the right move for them to make.”

And she warned of the downside of changing the law. She said: “If we’re imposing a legal age on their marriage or their community ceremony then it’s leaving it wide open to abuse because they will do whatever they want to do behind closed doors.”

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