UK MPs investigate child marriage
By Maria Caspani
LONDON (TrustLaw) – An unknown number of girls in Britain are married before the age of 18 each year, with many sent to their family’s country of origin to get married over the summer break, according to the chair of a parliamentary inquiry on child marriage.
Last week in London, the UK All Party Parliamentary Group on Population, Development and Reproductive Health held an inquiry into child marriage to collect evidence and advance action to stamp out this widespread practice.
Early marriage often condemns children to lives of poverty, ignorance and poor health, and is a major obstacle to development, rights groups say.
Worldwide, 10 million girls are married before the age of 18 each year – often without their consent and sometimes to a much older man.
Baroness Jenny Tonge, chair of the British parliamentary inquiry, spoke to TrustLaw about the goals of the cross-party initiative, and the social and cultural hurdles in the fight against child marriage.
A report on the inquiry will be available in the early autumn, she said.
What prompted this child marriage inquiry?
We’re constantly looking at ways to highlight this problem… and it is very difficult – people are not very interested in what happens to women in developing countries. We decided to look into child marriage because some two, three years ago we did an investigation into maternal mortality, not just on the women who died but also on those who suffered terribly as a result of child birth – women who have fistula and were so badly damaged that their life was destroyed as a consequence. We realised that one of the major causes of maternal death is early marriage, and (that) the girls are married so young that their bodies are simply not ready for child birth.
What evidence did you collect at the hearings in London last week?
We heard stories in the court of the inquiry… One Yemeni girl – who wasn’t actually taken from this country, she was an eight-year-old who was married to a 45 to 50-year-old in Yemen, arranged by his family – died three days later after the first intercourse from bleeding. When you hear the stories, it just makes you feel quite sick.
We know that coming up to the summer holidays in this country… there will be children taken out of school and taken to India, and some of them won’t even know what’s going to happen to them once they get there. They will be married and some may come back… but some may just stay there.
What is the situation in Britain?
This is what we don’t know. There are no figures at all and, from my experience, I know it’s very difficult to get figures because people are very secretive about it, and then the girls themselves will get into even more trouble if they tell their parents. It means death in some circumstances.
What action will be taken following the hearings?
We’re going to be asking a lot of questions to the (UK) government to try and see if they have got any idea of how many numbers are involved. There are no numbers at all, and we want to try and find out if there are any plans to count the number of girls who are taken out of the country… We have already met with the Director of Public Prosecutions to try and see if there is any way we can get around this problem of people not coming forward, not wanting to stand in witness boxes.
Is this month’s announcement by British Prime Minister David Cameron that the government will criminalise forced marriage a step in the right direction?
Of course it is. It is not law yet, of course, it is just an intent-bringing law… so we have got to make sure it is implemented. For example, one of the problems with female genital mutilation (FGM) – I helped bring in a law in 2003, when I was in the Commons, to stop girls being taken out of this country to have FGM – now, there hasn’t been a single prosecution in 10 years… I am beginning to feel, and a lot of the people that gave evidence were saying that there has got to be prosecution. It has to get through to the communities that, sorry, it might be a cultural practice but it is against human rights and we’re not going to let it happen to our citizens.
In your opinion, what are the main obstacles in the fight against child marriage?
People terrified of being culturally insensitive. It is cultural sensitivity on our part, and the other half of the equation is the reluctance of people to testify against their own family.
Photo credit: Child bride Krishna, 12, leaves her house in a village near Baran, located in the northwestern state of Rajasthan, July 30, 2011. REUTERS/Danish Siddiqui