There are fears that children as young as seven are at risk of child marriage, according to a leading charity.
Sky News was given access to call logs held by the Yorkshire-based charity Karma Nirvana.
They spoke of their shock when a call came from a health professional who told an operator, “Sister is worried that, out of shame, she was told she brought her family, her seven-year-old sister. May be married.”
Natasha Rattu, executive director of Karma Nirvana, which supports victims of honor abuse and forced marriage, said: “It doesn’t shock us much in Karma Nirvana’s team because we hear about some of the most horrific cases. But think during a pandemic. There are seven years. a girl who risks marriage – it’s really terrible. “
We also spoke with a member of the traveling community who claims she knows 14- and 15-year-old girls have been given blessings by priests in the past year – an understanding of the power of ceremonies held within different communities that, though not. legally recognized marriages, leave children trapped because they are seen as having made the same commitment as any other marriage.
A bill is presented to parliament to raise the age of marriage in England and Wales from 16 with parental consent to 18 and to make forcing children into marriage a criminal offense rather than placing the duty on the child to raise the alarm.
The campaigners say child marriage is not just a third world problem but is happening in the UK.
Ms Rattu said: “If they had a religious marriage – which we see happens very often under the age of 16 – there is no consequence of that in our law as it stands.
“There’s no ramification unless that seven-year-old doesn’t say ‘I’m a victim of forced marriage’ and I don’t think there are many seven-year-olds who would have that level of faith and even recognize that this. Is an abuse.”
The logs shared with us by Karama Nirvana are for the 12 months to September.
Other references include a social worker who told an operator: “The eldest daughter is 14 years old. This year they took her to Pakistan to get married. The 14-year-old is adamant that she wanted to get married.”
And a call for help came from someone who said of a family member: “She got engaged when she was 12 and then had a religious marriage right after she was 15.”
Ms Rattu said: “Many of these problems occur in minority communities. We find that professionals are very afraid to deal with these problems and there is also some recovery.”
Bridget Wall, now 26, said she was married at 16 and – while with parental consent it was legal – she feels she was too young.
Ms. Wall, who said she was trying to raise awareness about child marriage, made TikTok videos that were watched millions of times.
She said she was a child when she got married at 16 and is now separated. She said: “You are too vulnerable and it should be illegal.
“It seemed so normal to get married at that age. When you are married by the traveling community at 16, then you are considered an adult.”
But she told us she’s worried that even a change in the law won’t save some girls from community ceremonies because traditions are so deep.
She said: “I am aware of some stories about 14 and 15 year old girls having a blessing. When she is with that boy at 14 or 15 because it is not legal, they go to a priest and are blessed and basically they think that it is good because they have a blessing.
“They have to live together but she can’t come home because she slept with this boy and no one else will have her and if she comes home she is an embarrassment for her family.”
Traveler Movement chief executive Yvonne MacNamara said her organization “in principle agrees to raising the minimum age of marriage, but there are significant concerns around criminalization.”
She said criminalization tends to move problems underground and said there has not been enough consultation with affected communities on the proposed bill.
“The travel movement is concerned that any moves to criminalize underage marriage are likely to have the perverse, if unintended, consequence of an increase in the number of children – especially European Roma and traveling children – taken care of,” she added.
Mihai Calin Bica, of the Roman Support Group, said that criminalizing early marriage “without even a decent attempt to engage with us and educate us will only be realized in another form of repression against the Roman communities.”
MP Pauline Latham, who supports the private members’ bill, told Sky News: “I’ve been working on this for about four years. The whole incentive is mainly young girls who can’t sign any documents legally – because they aren’t. of age – are forced to marry.And sometimes are taken out of the country but not always.
“They are married in this country – sometimes with a civil ceremony – but sometimes only a religious ceremony. When you think that the law that allowed this to happen was in 1929 and has not been changed since.
“Now you have to stay in education or training until you’re 18 and it seems like a complete anomaly to allow kids to marry with all that that entails – it’s just pointless.
“What I’m not trying to do is stop having sex because you can’t stop that and never will. I’m just trying to save these young people from ruining their lives really when there are a lot of opportunities out there for them.
“It’s barbaric what’s going on, I think. It really needs to change completely so that kids can’t get married anymore. It’s a ridiculous situation to be in. Because at 16 you’re not going to go against your parents because you’re still so dependent on them “At 18, it’s much easier to stand up to your parents and say ‘no, that’s not what I want.'”
Ms Latham believes she has inter-party support.
But we spoke with one community voice opposing raising the effective age of marriage to 18 years.
West Yorkshire councilor Habiban Zaman is working on women’s issues in her Batley community. She told us she did not support the bill.
She said: “I don’t see why we should force them not to get married (at 16).”
While she says she doesn’t encourage getting married at 16, girls are more confident and assertive than they were 10 years ago.
She said: “In my experience I don’t see this as a problem getting married at 16. If it’s the young person’s choice, I don’t see why we should raise that to 18. If they feel they’re mature enough and old enough. . enough to take that responsibility the couple will have to each other and live together I don’t see why we should raise that to 18. ”
Ms. Zaman told us she would be careful if there were community religious wedding ceremonies with girls younger than 16 even though she doesn’t know about anyone.
She said: “I think the communities we’re talking about are well aware of their social responsibility to these young people and I believe that if anyone younger than 16 came to any of the academics, they would lead them. in the right way.
“From many of the academics I know, they would sit down and explain the rights and responsibilities of entering that ceremony or that contract and maybe try to talk them out of it if they feel that’s not the right move for them to make.”
And she warned of the disadvantage of changing the law. She said: “If we impose a legal age on their wedding or their community ceremony, then it leaves it wide open to abuse because they will do whatever they want to do behind closed doors.”