The legal marriage age in England and Wales has been raised to 18.
The law change, which took effect today, has been hailed as a “huge victory for survivors”.
From Monday, 16 and 17-year-olds can no longer wed or enter a civil partnership in England or Wales – even with parental consent – in an effort to better protect children from forced marriage.
The change, under the Marriage and Civil Partnership (Minimum Age) Act, means it is now a crime to exploit vulnerable children by arranging for them to marry under any circumstances, whether or not force was used.
The law will cover non-legally binding “traditional” ceremonies which would still be viewed as marriages by the parties and their families, the Government said.
The new legislation has been described as a “huge leap forward” in fighting back against the “hidden abuse” of forced marriage.
Natasha Rattu, director of the Karma Nirvana charity, which is a member of the Girls Not Brides Coalition, said she hopes there will be better identification and reporting of such cases.
She said: “The change to legislation on child marriage 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.
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“Last year, the national Honour Based Abuse helpline supported 64 cases of child marriage, representing only a small picture of a much bigger problem. We hope that the new law will help to increase identification and reporting, affording greater protection to children at risk.”
The government’s forced marriage unit provided advice or support in 118 cases involving victims aged under 18 in 2021.
The Ministry of Justice said the statistics showed forced marriage is more likely to impact girls than boys, with 2018 figures for England and Wales showing that 28 boys married under the age of 18 compared with 119 girls.
Justice Secretary Dominic Raab said perpetrators will face the “full force of the law”, with someone found guilty of arranging child marriages potentially getting a sentence of up to seven years in prison.
He said: “This law will better protect vulnerable young people, by cracking down on forced marriage in our society.
“Those who act to manipulate children into marrying under-age will now rightly face the full force of the law.”
Conservative MP Pauline Latham, who introduced the Bill in Parliament in 2021, said Monday is a “landmark day for the campaigners who have worked relentlessly for over five years to ban child marriage in this country”.
She added: “Child marriage destroys lives and through this legislation we will protect millions of boys and girls over the coming years from this scourge.”
Safeguarding minister Sarah Dines said the Government is working to ensure that, as well as the new law, training and guidance is provided to equip police, social workers and other frontline professionals to “support and safeguard victims.”