Nusantara, Indonesia (Photo by Zaki Muhammad / EyeEm)
Artillery Row

Missing the point on marriage

We should not further undermine one of our oldest institutions

Marriage was once highly regarded in our society and in policy. Today, it is losing its status in both these areas. Over the last few years, the Conservatives have faced a series of choices about whether they want to reform this ancient institution, and most proposals have been voted through. Marriage policies have undergone considerable changes in recent years — from same-sex marriage, to marriage certificates, to tax breaks, to no-fault divorce. Now, a new law will receive Royal Assent, with potentially the largest social implications to date.

This week, the government is raising the legal age of marriage to 18 through the Marriage and Civil Partnership (Minimum Age) Act 2022, reforming the current law which permits 16- and 17-year-olds to get married with parental consent. The Children’s Commissioner was fully behind the idea a year ago, and there was no real opposition to it in the Commons. 

The law sets the tone that sexual activity and marriage need not be aligned

Yet, as the new law comes into force, it is vitally important that the real policy implication of the changes are not overlooked. Without doing so, the Conservatives risk undermining the very institution that sits at the bedrock of the stable society they have historically been so keen to promote, and the landscape of family policies. For the first time in the UK, the law will disassociate the legal age for marriage from the legal age of consent. Whilst the public might have already separated the two concepts in practice many years ago, the political decision to create a schism between the two sets the tone that sexual activity and marriage need not be aligned. This is significant.

Whilst the numbers of births for under 18-year olds have been dramatically decreasing due to rising numbers of abortions by this age group, there are still over 15,000 annual births to this demographic. Now, all these young women — entitled under the law to get pregnant — will be denied the option of entering into a legal relationship with the father of their child until later in life. The law forgets that married couples with children are statistically much more likely to stay together than cohabiting couples; children fare better with married parents; and marriage spurs men on to work harder and earn more. Marriage serves children.

The former Health Secretary passionately outlined his backing for the draft law by stating that the current law allows Asian and ethnic minority parents to coerce teenagers into marriages they would not choose, and that this harmful practice should be outlawed. Many representatives from Asian communities have echoed this, saying that Britain risks hypocrisy in advocating for the abolition of child marriage in developing countries whilst permitting it domestically. 

This argument fails to acknowledge the vast majority of child weddings in these communities are customary or religious marriages. It is well known that Imams in the UK have been willing to officiate weddings (“Nikahs”) of girls aged down to 12 years in accordance with Sharia rules, and there are still 85 active Sharia courts running alongside official courts of England and Wales handling domestic matters such as marriage and divorce. A 2017 poll revealed that two-thirds of all Nikahs of all ages are not registered in law, and the calls to remove this practice have not been followed through by Parliament, despite the frequent calls to do so by advocates such as Baroness Cox

Fears about Asian child brides recorded under civil law do not match the figures

It is also curious how the numbers of teenage marriages have fallen significantly since the 1960s when nearly 30,000 16-17 year olds got married, compared to only 183 in 2017. Yet, numbers of people within the Asian communities have grown sharply over the past forty years. Fears about child brides from the Asian communities recorded under civil law do not match these figures.

Therefore, the new law is curious. It misses the mark in addressing the problem it is cited to resolve: a problem of parental coercion. More significantly, it also prevents families being formed and children being looked after under the most optimal conditions. It ignores the years of the Conservative party’s emphasis on strengthening families, promoting stability and instituting values. It ignores the Conservatives’ matriarchal voice from 1988 stating, “we must strengthen the family … or we will be faced with the heart-rendering social problems which no Government could possibly cure — or perhaps even cope with”. 

If there is political resolve to tackle the problem outlined by the government, the more difficult issues need to be tackled. Sharia law is still operating in the country, parents are still coercing their daughters into legal civil marriages, and children will still be born to girls above the age of consent not entitled by law to get married. Will a brave politician rise above the rest to speak out on these issues? 

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