Even More Forgotten: UK Child Brides and COVID-19
Writing by Tamzin Elliott. Illustration by Heather Baillie (@heatherscreativeplace on Insta).
Image Description: Drawn in coloured crayon, this piece shows a childs backpack in a school cloakroom hanging open to reveal books, a pencil case, and a wedding veil.
Amongst calls for a COVID-19 recovery plan which builds a ‘new normal’ centred around social responsibility, we are remembering the women and forgetting the girls. Child marriage is an issue that no one remembered in the world we left behind, and that no one is considering in the one we live in now.
Over the last decade child marriage has decreased by 15%, but global progress needs to happen 12 times faster than it has been in order to meet Target 5.3 of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs): eliminating harmful practices such as child, early and forced marriage, and FGM by 2030.[i] Instead, the coronavirus pandemic has reversed these years of progress as its consequences place an estimated additional 13 million girls at increased risk of becoming child brides.[ii] Classed as a human rights violation by the UN, a child marriage is when one or both persons involved in a formal or informal marriage are under 18 years of age. As demonstrated in the aftermath of the Ebola epidemic, the consequences following a health crisis are disproportionately gendered and determined by sociocultural factors.[iii] The consequences of the coronavirus pandemic and contributing factors to child marriage are practically identical: school closures, aggravated economic hardship and lack of access to sexual and reproductive health (SRH) services, to name just a few, are creating an increasingly dangerous environment for young girls.
The Forced Marriage Unit (FMU) is the central help point for people living in the UK and British nationals living abroad who are suffering from forced marriage. In 2019, 27% of cases brought to their attention involved under-18s and 80% of the victims identified themselves as female; this is without accounting for cases that go unrecorded. The FMU typically experiences a spike in calls around the school holidays, but when schools closed indefinitely in March 2020 there was no provision made for vulnerable girls.[iv] Staff in schools will have received child protection training and can recognise the signs that a child may be about to be forced into marriage, but detecting these signs relies primarily on a physical presence which online learning cannot replicate. Victims are unlikely to be comfortable disclosing their situation for fear of violent consequences, so a safe space where trained professionals are able to monitor and detect situations in-person is even more important. Online learning often means no in-person contact and less frequent pupil-teacher communication, so it is easier for child marriage to go undetected, especially for those at home being monitored by their families or without internet access.
Schools are also typically a help point for essential SRH services, but as girls find themselves out of education, jobless and lacking funds for these much-needed resources, engaging in unsafe practices such as child marriage may be used as a way of relieving this financial burden. Many families view child marriage as an opportunity to escape violence or economic instability, but widespread economic hardship has increased the risk of domestic violence, heightened by lockdown restrictions which trap girls with abusive partners and family members. According to charity Refuge, calls to the National Domestic Abuse Helpline were 80% higher than usual in June 2020.[v] Reduced access to SRH services has increased the numbers of unplanned pregnancies, which is both a cause and a consequence of child marriage. Child marriage may be practiced to counter the shame of an unplanned pregnancy, but engaging in the practice causes a greater need for contraception as there is a heightened risk of sexual violence.[vi] In a time of snowballing cases of gender-based violence alongside reduced access to safe and affordable SRH services, the toll on the psychosocial health of girls and child brides needs to be addressed as a matter of urgency.
Historically, the UK government’s response to child marriage can only be described as a pattern of hypocrisy. Despite committing to Target 5.3 of the SDGs and ratifying the 1991 Convention on the Rights of the Child which sets a minimum marriage age of 18, it has yet to adapt legislation to reflect these commitments.[vii] Certainly, the devolved nature of marriage legislation complicates matters. Scotland sets the minimum marriageable age at 16, no parental consent required, whereas the rest of the Union sets it at 18, or 16 with parental consent or permission of the court. Unsurprisingly, tensions within the Union surrounding the governance of COVID-19 have sparked enlivened discussion around Scottish independence; in an independent Scotland of today, how much greater would the risk of child marriage be in a country where the practice is legitimised under the law, and which is no longer under the jurisdiction of the FMU? Even if Scottish independence does not materialise, the onset of COVID-19 undoubtedly presents an urgent case for revising marriage legislation so that it provides better protection for young girls. Furthermore, when the Department for International Development is dissolved in September 2020 the government will have even more opportunity to push the issue under the radar. Since they failed to adequately utilise the resources of DfID to investigate the practice and strengthen the existing programmes combatting it, we are now poorly placed to deal with the increasing number of cases emerging from the pandemic; the enormous void in the statistics means we have little to no understanding of the extent of the issue in times of normality.
The Ministry of Justice anticipated that activity in the family justice system would be significantly reduced from April 2020, meaning that applications and grants for Forced Marriage Protection Orders (FMPO) will likely be delayed.[viii]An FMPO stipulates that persons named in the order cannot force a person into marriage or take them overseas for that purpose, and is an important form of legal protection for victims. With courts and government services operating at reduced capacity in order to comply with social distancing measures, cases are not being dealt with and charities fighting to end child marriage such as Karma Nirvana and Girls Not Brides UK have been forced to put on hold campaigning and efforts to push new legislation forward.
But legislation and statistics are only half the story. Child marriage is a complex and nuanced social issue with many combinations of contributing factors, meaning the government will be unable to respond with the same one-size-fits-all approach it so keenly applies in governing other areas of social life. If we are going to eliminate child marriage by 2030 in line with the SDGs then the government needs to recognise its responsibility towards the wellbeing and lives of young girls in this country, as well as for thousands of others across the world - a responsibility which must extend beyond times of crisis and into periods of greater stability. In 2017 Bangladesh re-legalised child marriage and used the legality of the practice in the UK as justification, and other countries have similarly referenced this as a reason not to enforce a ban.[ix] The government needs to confront the reality that it is causing significant harm both at home and abroad, especially as socioeconomic disparities deepen as a result of COVID-19, forcing child marriage further into obscurity. Even as the pandemic has brought many glaring inequalities to the unwilling attention of our legislators, child marriage still occupies a concerning status of anonymity on the government agenda.
If we genuinely want to embrace gender equality and inclusivity in a post-pandemic climate, recognising our social and moral responsibility as advocates for the most vulnerable groups in society is essential for eliminating harmful practices such as child marriage. Hoping for a ‘new normal’ characterised by greater fairness and equality is all well and good, but we need to ensure that our conversations include the girls we are always forgetting and the ones we have already forgotten.
[i] ‘Child Marriage: Latest Trends and Future Prospects’, UNICEF DATA, 5 July 2018, https://data.unicef.org/resources/child-marriage-latest-trends-and-future-prospects/.
[ii] ‘COVID-19 Increases Child Marriage and FGM Risk for Millions: UN’, https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2020/06/covid-19-increases-child-marriage-fgm-risk-millions-200630070320006.html.
[iii] Clara Menéndez et al., ‘Ebola Crisis: The Unequal Impact on Women and Children’s Health’, The Lancet Global Health no. 3.
[iv] ‘Forced Marriage Unit Statistics 2019’, GOV.UK, https://www.gov.uk/government/statistics/forced-marriage-unit-statistics-2019.
[v] June Kelly and Sally Graham, ‘Domestic Abuse Helpline Sees Lockdown Surge’, BBC News, 23 July 2020, https://www.bbc.com/news/uk-53498675.
[vi] Girls Not Brides, ‘COVID-19 and Child, Early and Forced Marriage: An Agenda for Action’, https://www.girlsnotbrides.org/resource-centre/covid-19-and-child-early-and-forced-marriage-an-agenda-for-action/.
[vii] Girls Not Brides, ‘United Kingdom - Child Marriage Around The World. Girls Not Brides’, https://www.girlsnotbrides.org/child-marriage/united-kingdom/.
[viii] ‘Family Court Statistics Quarterly: January to March 2020’, GOV.UK, https://www.gov.uk/government/statistics/family-court-statistics-quarterly-january-to-march-2020.
[ix] ‘Ending Child Marriage in the United Kingdom’, Human Rights Watch, 6 September 2018, https://www.hrw.org/news/2018/09/06/ending-child-marriage-united-kingdom.