Child marriages could go undetected as lockdown eases because authorities don't keep proper records: Experts
Young girls and minors who are vulnerable to child marriage are going undetected because of a lack of record-keeping by authorities in England and Wales. A non-profit women's rights organization has said more than half of the departments pertaining to children's social care are behind on documentation.
According to Iranian and Kurdish Women Right's Organisation (IKWRO), local authorities are not prepared for the spike in cases of child marriage cases as the pandemic lockdown begins to ease. There are concerns that social workers are not fully equipped or conscious of the complexities surrounding honor-based abuse, which includes child marriage. The IKWRO has petitioned to the local authorities, urging them to look closely into this and log every potential child marriage case following a Freedom of Information writ's findings that 56% of the departments responsible for children's social care in the two countries have been negligible in recording those at risk. IKWRO looks into the protection of Middle-eastern and Afghan women, as well as girls who are at risk of honor-based abuse, forced and child marriages, female genital mutilation (FGM), and domestic violence.
Data collected under the FOI request suggests that between 2018 and 2019 (the latest data available), 165 were at risk of child marriage while 280, which includes 117 looked-after children, were at risk of honor-based abuse. Out of all the local authorities that were questioned, 66 confirmed that there was no documentation process to note the number of children in danger. IKWRO asserts that the authorities need to step up and record every potential child at risk of these complex crimes to understand the severity of the problem and respond to their incidence on a nation-wide scale. In reality, the number of child marriage cases in the UK are suspected to be much higher.
Diana Nammi, the founder of IKWRO told Guardian that there is a need for a national review to investigate the process of record-keeping by the children's social services in Britain. The FOI request found that even in areas like Birmingham and Bradford, where the cases of child-marriages are reportedly high, there isn't documentation that supports the number of children that might be at risk. “We know through years working with survivors as well as data collected from police forces that they affect nearly every local authority in the country," said Nammi.
“Social workers have a crucial role to play in recording and responding to these cases,” she added. “But if they are handled incorrectly, the consequences can be fatal. It is vital to record every case so the adequate resources are in place.”
The latest compilation of UK-wide figures shows that there are far more cases of child marriage than what the local authorities' have recorded. The Forced Marriage Unit, which is a collaboration between the UK's Foreign Office and Home Office and leads the government's work on child marriage, gave advice and support to 1,746 cases involving possible forced marriage cases in 2018. At least a third of the total number of cases, about 574, who had been victims of forced marriages were found to be minors, under 18 years of age. Furthermore, they found a 13% increase in addition to the average 1,338 annual cases documented between 2011 and 2017. Data for cases in 2019 is yet to be published.
A spokesperson for the government spoke to the Guardian and maintained that they are “working closely with the police and charities [so] forced marriage protection orders remain a priority for the family courts during the pandemic.”
How has the lockdown increased child-marriage cases?
Since the lockdown was implemented at the onset of the pandemic, Nammi said IKWRO has seen "an increased intensity" in the cases of "honor" abuse, that most of its workers are already familiar with. She said they are expecting a hike in the cases when the UK begins to ease the Covid-19 lockdown. “At present with schools closed and restrictions on movement many at-risk children are not interacting with professionals who should be able to spot the signs and refer them to social services for protection,” Nammi told the Guardian. “As the lockdown measures begin to lift, now more than ever, social services must be equipped to properly understand the dynamics of ‘honor’ and be ready to safeguard children. If they fail to do this, many will be left vulnerable to severe, lifelong harm,” she added.
World Vision, a humanitarian aid organization, published a report based on the global scenario of child marriage and estimated that at least an additional 2 million girls could be at risk in the next two years due to the pandemic. It has also warned that the increasing numbers of poverty-stricken families will lead to them selling their daughters into marriage in desperate need of money to survive. In addition, data compiled by the United Nations suggest that there might now be at least 13 million more child marriages spanning over the course of the next 10 years. This may be as a result of the economic ramifications from Covid-19 that have led to support programs facing a funding crisis.
Is child marriage legal in Britain?
The universal definition for child marriage implies the marriage of young girls and minors below the age of 18 and it remains legal in Britain. In England, Wales and Northern Ireland, teenagers can wed at 16 years of age, with parental consent. In Scotland, however, no parental consent is required over 16. It was set as the minimum age for marriage in 1929 when it socially unacceptable for a man and woman to live together or for a woman to be pregnant out of wedlock.
For decades, girls of South Asian and Middle Eastern ethnicity or background have been at high risk of early marriage in Britain, because having relationships that is not a marriage is considered shameful to their culture. According to a 2004 Guardian report, girls as young as 12 years old have been smuggled and forced to be brides of older men in the Muslim community. Those trying to escape child marriages have faced dire consequences including death, for breaking the honor code of her husband and both sides of the family.
The Forced Marriage Unit dealt with 1,764 cases in 2018, a jump of 47% on the year previously, with more than 40% of cases related to Pakistan but reports involving dozens of countries ranging from Somalia to Iraq and Romania and in Britain itself.
How do child marriages impact young girls?
According to Girls Not Brides, an NGO campaigning against child marriage, at least one in five girls around the world are married off before they turn 18. The NGO determines that the impact of getting married at such a young age is similar, no matter where they live. They are more likely to be school-drop outs and are extremely vulnerable to domestic abuse, marital rape and health problems associate with teenage pregnancy.
Campaigners against child marriage have repeatedly said that the 'parental consent' clause for girls under 18 has become an incentive for forced marriages. If the minimum age was raised, then the girls would be more empowered to say no. They have also said that the official marriage statistics do not convey the severity of the problem because many young girls enter marriages through traditional ceremonies and their weddings are not officially registered. Many others are taken abroad for marriage, and they only return to Britain when they are older.
Forced marriage was banned in the UK in 2014 and the government has also taken action to rescue girls who had been sent abroad for marriage, prosecuted parents that devised child marriages for their underaged children as well as issued laws for protection against forced marriages. Forced marriage laws can only be used in England there is evidence of psychological and physical force. Sadly, many children are groomed or brought up to accept such marriages and out of love or compulsion from family they end up consenting so it becomes difficult to prove whether it was forced or coerced. Even reporting child marriage or speaking against the arrangement can endanger the family or the girls' lives.