MPs have supported plans to ban child marriage in “all its forms” in England and Wales.
The Marriage and Civil Partnership (Minimum Age) Bill was given an unopposed second reading on Friday, with support coming from both the Government and opposition benches.
The Private Member’s Bill was originally meant to be proposed by Health Secretary Sajid Javid, but Conservative MP Pauline Latham took the Bill over after Mr Javid was reappointed to the Cabinet in June.
As well as raising the minimum age for marriage to 18, the Bill would also make it an offence, punishable with up to seven years’ imprisonment, to carry out “any conduct for the purpose of causing a child to enter into a marriage”.
It would also make it easier to prosecute parents or family members who send under-18s abroad to be wed.
The MP for Mid Derbyshire told the Commons child marriage happens “far more often” than people think, with the charity Karma Nirvana responding to 76 known cases within England and Wales in the last 12 months.
She said: “The whole point of the Bill is to stop these young people being victims because they are. And even if there’s prosecution, we should not expect them to be criminalised.
“It is not their fault, they are the victims in this situation and what we should be doing is supporting these young people.”
Mrs Latham believes establishing the legal age of marriage at 18 with no exceptions would give “a clear message to everyone that child marriage is unacceptable” and would help the UK “live up to its international obligations by banning child marriage in all its forms and allows us to take that message to the rest of the world”.
Labour MP Sarah Champion described her “shame” at not realising a friend had been in a child marriage until she took up campaigning against the issue years later.
The MP for Rotherham said a friend she met at university had married at the age of 16 to a “much older man”.
She recalled: “She was married at 16 to a much older man. She was white British, he was a white American. They were both religious, I won’t say religious extremists, they were both very fundamental in their religious beliefs.
“She had barely met the man, she had corresponded by letter for a year or so before they got married. He came over to the country as soon as they were married.
“He was very aggressive. He was very abusive. I vividly remember him pinning her down in front of me and spitting in her face, saying: ‘It is your duty to obey me, God says you have to obey me’. I just couldn’t believe it.”
Ms Champion added: “I shame myself now for saying this, I never recognised that this was a child marriage, this was a forced marriage, until I started campaigning with the honourable member for Mid Derbyshire (Pauline Latham).
“I’ve got chills as I think about it. And that moment of recollection, wow, this is going on amongst us.”
Speaking from the Labour frontbench, Andy Slaughter offered his support for the Bill, saying it is an important “statutory step forward” before adding: “From this side of the House we wish it well in the remaining stages.”
Confirming Government backing, Home Office minister Tom Pursglove said the “fact that it is currently possible to marry at 16 is setting the wrong example at home and abroad”.
He added: “Having laws which enable child marriage weakens our voice in discussions with other countries and damages efforts to ban child marriage globally.
“This is an area where we should be leading by example and this Bill will enable us to do this.”
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