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England and Wales are about to (finally) ban child marriage

Campaigners question why under-18s should be able to make such a big economic decision when they're restricted from so many others.

The House of Commons has just voted for a bill that states you can only get married in England and Wales if you are at least 18 years old. If it passes the House of Lords, all child marriage will become illegal in those countries for the first time. Currently, residents there can be married from the age of 16 with parental permission. That makes the UK a bit of an outlier in the world, and especially amongst richer countries, most of whom peg the minimum marriage age to 18, the same age that is widely considered to be the onset of adulthood.

So why has the UK government taken so long to get around to changing such an old-fashioned law? Well, for one thing it’s not being taken advantage of all that much. Just 125 16- and 17-years olds got married in England and Wales in 2019, compared to more than 200,000 adults. Some people might also say that teenagers are capable of making their own decisions, and that the state shouldn’t really be interfering in how people express their love.

The thing is, though, marriage isn’t just about love: ultimately, it’s an economic contract. It gives its parties claims over each other’s assets and property (i.e. all the valuable things they own, not just houses). It changes how much tax you pay, what your pension looks like and which benefits you are entitled to. It’s also expensive to get out of - an average UK divorce will set you back £14,561.

As a society we have decided that we should limit the financial and economic actions that under-18 year-olds can perform: they cannot gamble, there are more limits on their work hours, they cannot borrow money from a bank, there are restrictions on which products they can purchase, etc. These rules were created out of a sense that children need to be protected from inflicting harm on themselves. Many question why marriage should be any different.

This is before we even get into the troubling history of marriage also treating people as property. The practice of families betrothing women and girls to achieve some economic or social advantage - and without concern for her own preferences and welfare - is still very much alive and kicking. And rich Western countries are not completely exempt from it. Campaigners for raising the marriage age point out that the parent-child power dynamics at play means teenage girls are a particular risk group for this kind of abuse. Indeed, if all under-18 marriages in England and Wales were just cases of young love it seems unlikely that there would be such a gender imbalance: 77 percent of the married 17-year olds and 87 percent of married 16-year-olds in 2019 were female.

Beyond this, it’s been argued that Britain still allowing child marriage undermines attempts to ban it on a global scale, because politicians in countries where child marriage is rife ask why they should get rid of something that the UK apparently thinks is just fine.

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