Culture /

England and Wales Outlaw Marriage for 16- and 17-Year-Olds

Deputy Prime Minister: ‘This law will better protect vulnerable young people, by cracking down on forced marriage in our society’

The British government has increased the minimum legal age of matrimony in order to combat exploitation and forced marriage. 

Teens ages 16 or 17 will no longer be allowed to get legally married or enter civil partnerships even with parental consent in England or Wales. The law was introduced to prevent arranged marriages where the minor is forced to marry.

The Marriage and Civil Partnership (Minimum Age) Act 2022 took effect on Feb. 27 

“This law will better protect vulnerable young people, by cracking down on forced marriage in our society,” said Deputy Prime Minister Dominic Raab, the Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice, in a statement. “Those who act to manipulate children into marrying under-age will now rightly face the full force of the law.”

Anyone found to be in violation of the law – regardless of if the marriage is forced or not – could be sentenced to up to seven years in prison. The ban applies to “non-legally binding ‘traditional’ ceremonies which would still be viewed as marriages by the parties and their families,” according to the British government.

The Government’s Forced Marriage Unit reported 118 cases of forced marriages with a person under the age of 18 in 2021 out of a total of 337 cases. At the time, 22% of forced marriage cases involved a person under the age of 15 and 13% involved a person between 16 and 17 years old. 

The FMU has denied that forced marriage is “a problem specific to one country, religion or culture” and reported in 2021 that it “does not record data on religion; no major faith in the UK advocates forced marriage.”

However, the agency has identified 32 “focus countries” that are linked to the “force marriage risk.” Focus countries “could be the country where the forced marriage (or [female genital mutilation]) is due to take place, the country where it has taken place, and/or the country that the spouse is currently residing in.” 

In 2021, Pakistan was the focus country of 47% (159) of cases. Of these, 31% involved a victim who was known to be under the age of 18 and 21% involved a victim between the ages of 18 and 21. The majority of the victims in these cases (65%) were women. 

The FMU has reported a decline in cases, falling from over 1,100 each year between 2011 to 2019 to 759 in 2020. 

In 2022, the nation’s Honour Based Abuse helpline assisted in 64 cases of child marriage.

London’s Metropolitan Police define honor-based abuse as “a crime or incident committed to protect or defend the ‘honour’ of a family or community.” In addition to forced marriages, this can include many types of domestic abuse, being pressured to move abroad, being kept at home with little to no freedom, and being denied access to the telephone, internet, or passports and birth certificates.

MP Sarah Dines, the Minister for Safeguarding, 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.”

The change to the marriage-age law will not impact Northern Ireland or Scotland. In both countries, the age of consent for marriage will remain 16 without an approved revision enacted by each nation’s individual parliament. Notably, Northern Ireland does require minors under the age of 18 who are seeking to be married to obtain parental consent.

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