One in five girls around the world are married before they turn 18, according to Girls Not Brides, an NGO campaigning to end child marriage.
In the UK, child marriage is not illegal in all cases. What we mean by ‘child marriage’ is being married under the age of 18. In England, Wales and Northern Ireland, teenagers can wed at 16 with parental consent. In Scotland, 16-year-olds do not require their parents’ permission to tie the knot.
The UK’s Forced Marriage Unit estimates that between 5,000 and 8,000 people are at risk of being forced into marriage every year in England. In the past year, 29% of the calls received by the unit concerned children, with the youngest just 5 years old.
Data from the Office for National Statistics shows that 3,354 marriages involving 16 to 17-year-olds were registered in England and Wales between 2006 and 2016. This figure does not include unregistered religious marriages or marriages that take place abroad.
Forced marriage laws can only be used in England if the child can provide evidence of psychological and physical force. But children who are groomed to marry often do so out of love for or under duress from their family, which makes it difficult to prove that the marriage was forced or coerced. Moreover, reporting child marriage or speaking against the marriage can put girls’ lives at risk.
Payzee Mahmod and her sister Banaz were both child brides. Payzee is no longer in her marriage, and Banaz was murdered by their family in a so-called “honour killing” in 2006.
At 17, Banaz was coerced into marrying an abusive man. At 20, she was murdered for leaving her husband against her family’s wishes. Banaz’s father, Mahmod Babkir Mahmod, and uncle Ari Mahmod were given life sentences in 2007 for ordering her killing, along with a third man, Mohammad Hama, who carried out the act.
At the age of 16, Payzee was excited to make new friends, wear whatever she wanted and start the best chapter of her life. But all her hopes and dreams came crashing down when her father coerced her into marrying a man almost double her age. “My experience of child marriage was simply horrible,” she says. “I hated every second, I was devastated. All of my friends were normal teenagers but I had to go home to my husband and be a housewife.
“I barely knew what was happening most of the time, my brain just switched off. I turned to self-harm the first night. I didn’t have much time to focus on my education, I could never see my friends outside of college.”
Payzee became pregnant within the first two months of her marriage. She later had an abortion. “It was just so traumatising. The whole time I kept thinking, Why? Why do I have to do these things I don’t want to?
“It took away so much from me. I lost my childhood, the future I planned for myself flashed before my eyes and I suffered a lot of abuse. I experienced pretty much every type of abuse in the child marriage: financial, sexual, emotional and physical. I am still processing this many years on, it has taken a great deal from me. I will never get my childhood back.”
Payzee, now 32, said it has taken her a long time to accept she was a child bride but, despite its challenges, has spoken out about her experiences.
She is now an ambassador for Safeguard Futures: End Child Marriage, which is working alongside Freedom United and Girls Not Brides UK co-chairs IKWRO, Karma Nirvana, Forward and Independent Yemen Group to change the law in the UK.
“I strongly believe that we all need to take responsibility in making sure all children are safe from child marriage. I felt so let down by so many adults I came across during my marriage, and various professionals failed to raise any concern.
“I want young girls to know you have the right not to go through this, and you are not alone. I want parents who are complicit in child marriage to know that child marriage isn’t the norm. There is so much more you should want for your child.”
It took away so much from me. I lost my childhood, the future I planned for myself flashed before my eyes and I suffered a lot of abuse.Payzee Mahmod
Reflecting on the death of her sister, Payzee says it’s important for her to share her story to raise awareness of the harm child marriage can do to girls. “I lost my sister – my best friend – because she left her abusive child marriage. I have to honour my sister for the rest of her life and ensure we remember her forever. In doing that, I am hoping that every person who reads this will become aware of the negative impact this can have on girls and why we must all take responsibility in eradicating child marriage.”
Chantal Khoueiry, founder of Brides Do Good, London’s first sustainable bridal boutique which funds campaigns to end child marriage, said: “At 16, you are a child. You are in full-time education; you cannot drive or buy alcohol. Yet according to the current legislation in the UK, you can be married. Shockingly, according to our recent national poll, over 60% of the UK population are unaware of this.
“Child marriage robs children of their childhoods and destroys their chance for a bright future. It’s time for that to stop.”
If you or somebody you know is at risk of child marriage, you can contact IKWRO on 07846 275 246 (Kurdish, Arabic, English) or 07846 310 157 (Farsi, Dari, English) or alternatively, dial 999 if you are in immediate danger.
Like what you see? How about some more R29 goodness, right here?