Minimum age for marriage to increase in England & Wales – is Scotland trailing behind?
The minimum age for marriage in England & Wales is set to increase from 16 to 18, following The Marriage and Civil Partnership (Minimum Age) Bill receiving royal assent on 28 April 2022.
This will be a welcome change for many who advocate for the safeguarding of young girls from child marriage, forced marriage, and gender-based violence, but where does Scotland currently stand on the issue?
At the time of writing, in Scotland, if you are aged between 16 and 18 you do not need parental consent to get married. In England and Wales, even prior to the introduction of The Marriage and Civil Partnership (Minimum Age) Bill, under 18s have required the consent of each parent with parental responsibility, and any legal guardian, in order to get married.
The law in Scotland has therefore long allowed so-called ‘young lovers’ to elope to the famous Gretna Green, right on the Scottish border with England, to get married despite their parents’ disapproval. Whilst these ‘runaway marriages’ may have been romantic for some, there are nevertheless some very concerning effects of our low age of capacity to marry.
There is concern that Scotland could become if it has not already become, an attractive location for child marriages due to the lack of consent required and the low age for marriage. The impact of child marriages disproportionately affects young girls, and according to international non-governmental, non-profit organization, CAMFED, these marriages are understandably concerning for a number of reasons:
Often when a young girl is married, her education stops and her ability to become financially independent through a career of her own disappears. As such, young girls who are married are often trapped in the cycle of poverty due to their lack of earning potential. CAMFED cite that women who are employed reinvest 90% of their earnings back into their families, and so young girls who are married in childhood are being deprived of this opportunity to break the poverty cycle in their families.
Teenage birth rates are highest where child marriage is most prevalent. The risk of maternal mortality is highest for adolescent girls under 15 years old, and complications in pregnancy and childbirth are a leading cause of death among adolescent girls in developing countries. These dangers to young girls during pregnancy can leave behind vulnerable orphaned children, and the trauma of premature childbirth leaves young girls at risk of long term and debilitating health complications.
In addition, according to a survey carried out by the International Center for Research on Women and its partners, girls who were married before 18 were twice as likely to report being beaten, slapped, or threatened by their husbands than girls who married later. They were also three times as likely to report being forced to have sex without their consent in the previous six months.
Such issues, whilst still possible, are seen to be less likely in those who get married in their adult years.
The UN Sustainable Development Goals have also required all countries to “eliminate all harmful practices, such as child, early and forced marriage and female genital mutilations by 2030”, and the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC) also recommends that there should be no legal way for anyone to marry before they turn 18, even if there is parental consent.
So, is Scotland seeking to make any changes in relation to our age of capacity to marry?
It would seem that there are steps being taken, but there’s nothing as official as the changes England is introducing as of yet. The Scottish Parliament did unanimously vote to incorporate the UNCRC into Scots law in March 2021, however, we are yet to see any formal legislation updating the position on the existing age for capacity to marry in Scotland.
It is likely that in order for Scotland to fully incorporate the UNCRC into Scots Law, our position on the age of capacity to marry will have to change. If we are to strive towards being a progressive and equal nation that eradicates child abuse in all its forms, then upping the age of capacity to marry to 18 is as good a place to start as any.
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