Child marriage is 'a hidden crime,' and it's happening in Western nations, says survivor and advocate
Strengthening laws and improving education key to reducing the practice, say experts
Payzee Mahmod was 16 and just about to enter her college years when she learned she was going to be a child bride.
Her father had approached her to say a man was interested in marrying her. The man was a total stranger and twice her age, but in the U.K., where she lives, the marriage was perfectly legal.
"I just knew that from the moment he said that, I was going to be married and I didn't have any say in it," she told The Current's Matt Galloway. "And so pretty much overnight my life changed."
It wasn't until her older sister tried to leave her own abusive child marriage and was murdered in a "so-called honour killing" that Mahmod knew she had to get out of her relationship.
"I was just about to turn 18, and in the eyes of the law, be an adult," said Mahmod, who is now part of a campaign urging the U.K. to ban all forms of child marriage and ensure legal unions are registered with the government. "[It was] a very, very tragic, bittersweet way that I left my marriage."
Around the world, one in five girls are married before the age of 18, according to Girls Not Brides, a non-governmental organization dedicated to ending child marriage. Child marriage is rooted in gender inequality and patriarchal systems that try to control women and girls' behaviour and sexuality, the organization says. But it can also be rooted in poverty; families often marry girls off to reduce the financial burden on the household.
Although the practice is more common among girls, it also happens to boys. In 2019, UNICEF reported that 115 million boys worldwide were married before they turned 18.
It's not just an issue specific to developing countries, Mahmod noted. In 2018, the U.K. government responded to more than 1,500 reports of possible forced marriage — over 30 per cent of which involved minors under the age of 18, according to a study published last year.
And between 2000 and 2018, Canada issued more than 3,600 marriage certificates involving children under the age of 18, according to a study from McGill University. Child marriage rates were highest in Manitoba, Saskatchewan, Alberta and the territories, said Alissa Koski, one of the study's co-authors.
While the legal marriage age in most of the U.K. and Canada is 18, 16- and 17-year-olds can still wed with the consent of a parent. Koski said some people believe that requiring parental consent for marriage under the age of 18 is a form of protection. However, that's not necessarily the case.
"It can be impossible to distinguish parental consent from parental coercion," said the McGill University assistant professor. "In fact, it's often parents who are driving these marriages."
In addition to the number of children married in registered ceremonies in Canada, thousands more are married informally through common law marriage — a practice that's becoming more common, Koski said. Increasing public objection to child marriage could be behind that shift, the McGill study suggested.
'Veil of silence'
Samra Zafar was a teenager living in Pakistan when she was pushed into marriage with a Canadian man. She eventually moved to Ontario to live with him, and became a teen mother.
"It was very isolating," she said. "It was like living in this home in Mississauga that felt more like a prison to me, with no freedom whatsoever."
Zafar said people think Canada is "immune" to the practice, but that's not the case. She now works with victims of child marriage and said she regularly hears stories about school-aged girls being pressured into marriage, or of marriages being performed in religious institutions, but not registered.
"There's kind of a veil of silence, or a veil of honour in certain communities, that covers it up," said Zafar. "But it happens."
WATCH | Samra Zafar on being a teen bride and escaping her abusive marriage
Mahmod said religious and cultural marriages are also happening in the U.K., but because they aren't logged with the government, they don't show up in official data on how many marriages have happened in the country.
"It can seem like a hidden crime, just because of .... the types of marriages that are happening that are not registered," said Mahmod, a campaigner with the Iranian and Kurdish Women's Rights Organisation.
She said the legal "loophole" that allows U.K. children between the ages of 16 and 18 to marry with parental consent actually leaves them vulnerable to exploitation and forced marriage. In some cases, children are being taken abroad to get married, she added.
"That's exactly why we're making sure that the law is changed, because it's inconsistent and it's not protecting young people," Mahmod said.
WATCH | Alissa Koski on the prevalence of child marriage in Canada
In Canada, the first step to ending child marriage should be to bring the legal age for all marriages up to 18, said Koski, as Canada has encouraged developing nations to do.
Canada's Justice Department told The Current it shares the concern that all children should be protected from early and forced marriage.
In response to calls to raise the legal age for marriage to 18, the department noted that the federal government in 2015 set the minimum age for marriage in Canada at 16, and amended the Criminal Code to make forced marriage an offence. Prior to the change, the minimum marriage age set by some provinces was as young as 14, said Koski.
The statement added that the provinces and territories were encouraged at the time to amend their laws so "all marriages between the age of 16 and the age of majority could take place only with court approval to better protect children from early and forced marriage."
Quebec law states that people aged 16 or 17 must get court approval to marry. However, most provinces require parental consent for 16- or 17-year-olds to marry.
Education is key
Rowena Pinto, UNICEF Canada's chief program officer, said governments around the world are working to end the practice of child marriage, but it's not just a matter of changing the law.
Children need to be informed in school about their rights, and families should be made aware of the harmful effects of child marriage, Pinto said. In addition, community role models can help encourage young people to stand up for their rights, she added.
But lockdowns have put education on pause in many parts of the world, making children more vulnerable to issues like child marriage, she said.
"It is quite hypocritical for these kinds of things to be happening in high-income countries," Pinto said, "because countries like the U.K., and Canada as well, have really been at the forefront internationally in terms of working across borders to end child marriage."
Written by Kirsten Fenn. Produced by Amanda Grant and Niza Lyapa Nondo.
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