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England and Wales ‘one step closer to ending child marriage’ after MP vote | Global development

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A ban on child marriage in England and Wales came a step closer Friday with cross-party support for a new bill in the House of Commons.

The marriage and civil partnership (minimum age) bill had its second reading in parliament, with government and opposition MPs supporting the private member’s bill brought by Conservative MP Pauline Latham.

The vote was welcomed by campaigners and survivors of child marriage who have been lobbying against the current legislation, which allows 16 and 17-year-olds to wed with parental consent.

The bill would raise the minimum age of marriage and civil partnership to 18, but also criminalise any marriage, including non-legalised religious marriages, under that age, making “any conduct causing” such a union an offence. Crucially, campaigners say, this would take the onus away from a child to prove their marriage is forced, and strengthen the responsibility of professionals in safeguarding children.

Many cases of child marriage in the UK are unregistered and “invisible”, campaigners say, taking place in religious or traditional family settings at ages lower than 16.

“As a child bride myself, I celebrate with tears of pain and of joy, as we are one step closer to ending child marriages,” said Ruby Marie, 38, from Wales, who was forced to marry at 15. She now works as an ambassador for Karma Nirvana, a UK charity supporting victims of forced marriage and “honour”-based abuse.

She said that the “child abuse” of underage marriage can cause lifelong trauma.

“You get PTSD [post-traumatic stress disorder],” said Marie, whose parents took her to Bangladesh to marry and kept her there until she got pregnant, months later. “I was lost for a very long time. I was a child, with the body of a child. I was raped by a man twice my age. I felt I was being sold. I was mentally confused. I loved my parents, how would they do this to me? It is mental torture. This bill will help so many people.”

In Britain, children as young as seven are at risk of child marriage, Karma Nirvana said. This year the group supported 78 children in England and Wales facing the threat of forced marriage. Three were under 10 – the youngest, seven – while the majority, 52 children, were 16 and 17.

Most were of British Pakistani heritage, but they also helped Kurdish, Romanian, Turkish and Afghan children born or living in the UK.

Zeynep* came to London with her mother in 2016 from her homeland, where she had already survived a short-lived marriage to an abusive man.

“In my country it happens to very young children,” Zaynep said. “It is a humiliating tradition. I was 12. My mother told me: ‘This is normal.’”

“I want child marriage to be made illegal, because that way, when you ask for help you would get it,” she said. “I’m angry I didn’t get help and I don’t want that to happen to anyone else.”

Fearing she would be remarried in the UK, Zeynab said she went to the police for protection four times before being taken seriously. She hopes a change in the law would improve police protection for victims.

Officers came to her house and initially removed her from her family, but after two days she was returned to them.

“My family denied everything. They said I was crazy and I told lies. I was so disappointed. It was a huge step for me to go to the police.”

At the age of 15, she was married to a 26-year-old man in the UK.

“One day, he told everyone, my mother-in-law, father-in-law, to leave the house. My mother came on the phone and said now you need to have sex with him and prove you are a virgin. He locked the door. I was so scared. He raped me.”

Last year Zeynep gained police protection and now lives with a foster family and is supported by the Iranian and Kurdish Women’s Rights Organisation (IKWRO), which has long campaigned to ban child marriage.

“Many bad things have happened to me,” she said. “But having supportive people around me has helped me, given me strength. I feel powerful.”

“I thought about going to the police for months,” Zaynep said, of her first attempt to get help in London, at 13. “I didn’t know the number, so I Googled it. I was so scared. And then, they sent me back to my family, who denied everything. My mum threatened to kill me.”

*Zaynep is not her real name.

In the UK, the NSPCC offers support to children on 0800 1111, and adults concerned about a child on 0808 800 5000. The National Association for People Abused in Childhood (Napac) offers support for adult survivors on 0808 801 0331. In the US, call or text the Childhelp abuse hotline on 800-422-4453. In Australia, children, young adults, parents and teachers can contact the Kids Helpline on 1800 55 1800; adult survivors can seek help at Blue Knot Foundation on 1300 657 380. Other sources of help can be found at Child Helplines International.

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Kill the Bill and period protests: human rights this fortnight – in pictures | Global development

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‘No embargo’ on meetings with Putin, EU says

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EU leaders are free to meet Russian president Vladimir Putin despite his threats to start a new war with Ukraine, the EU foreign service has said. “There is no embargo on contacts and visits between member states and Russia. Each member state decides … on their own judgment,” the EU foreign service told EUobserver. The comment follows reports Croatia invited Putin to visit and that Hungary’s leader will meet him.

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Vulnerable Malians could ‘pay the price’ of heavy sanctions, warn aid groups | Global development

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More than a dozen aid organisations have called for humanitarian exemptions to heavy sanctions imposed on Mali after the military leadership postponed planned February elections.

The EU has announced support for the sanctions imposed earlier this month by the Economic Community of West African States (Ecowas), which include closing borders and a trade embargo.

But this week, 13 international groups working in Mali warned of devastating consequences for the population, a third of whom rely on aid.

Humanitarian access is hindered by the Malian interim authorities’ decision to reciprocate border closures with Ecowas member states, except Guinea.

Thousands of people demonstrated against the sanctions last week in the capital Bamako, carrying placards saying “down with Ecowas” and “down with France”.

The country is in the grip of the worst food insecurity in 10 years.

A joint letter signed by the NGOs, including the International Rescue Committee (IRC), Care and the Norwegian Refugee Council, said: “To continue their work effectively, humanitarian actors must have unfettered access for the transportation of life-saving goods including food and medicine, as well as guarantees that they can transfer funds into the country without violating the sanctions.”

Mali’s current insecurity dates back to early 2012 when northern separatists rebelled against the government. Islamist militants that initially allied with the separatists, including Ansar Dine, al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), and the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa, ultimately hijacked the rebellion.

France, the former colonial ruler, made a military intervention in 2013 on the government’s side against the militants. The UN has also deployed an estimated 18,000 peacekeeping staff, in what was called its most dangerous mission.

The Malian military, led by Col Assimi Goïta, has conducted two coups in two years and reneged on promises to hold new elections. The junta’s most recent power grab, in May 2021, was the fifth coup since Mali’s independence in 1960 and it has been unwilling to commit to transition to civilian rule, despite international pressures.

Postponement of elections has been blamed on Islamist insecurity, an impasse that has deepened with the arrival of private military contractors belonging to the Russian mercenary firm Wagner Group. European states have condemned Wagner’s presence, concerned it will enable the military to hold on to power.

EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell said this month that EU sanctions on Mali were in part in response to the involvement of Russian contractors. France is withdrawing troops, but 14 other EU members, led by Sweden, had established a taskforce to replace them in a three-year mandate. As tensions intensified over the Wagner Group, Sweden said last week that it had decided to withdraw its troops.

France, which holds the rotating EU presidency, has been vociferous in its support of sanctions but Russia and China have blocked the UN security council’s move to follow suit.

Ecowas has frozen financial aid and Malian assets at the Central Bank of West African States.

Elena Vicario, director for the Norwegian Refugee Council in Mali, said: “Malians are already bearing the brunt of the humanitarian catastrophe, punctuated by horrifying attacks against civilians. Sanctions must not hold us back from delivering essential assistance in a country where drought, rising insecurity, and the economic impacts of Covid-19 are already pushing millions of Malians over the edge.”

Franck Vannetelle, the IRC’s country director in Mali, echoed Vicario, saying: “Despite more than a third of the country’s population being dependent on humanitarian aid, organisations working in Mali already face severe access constraints. It’s imperative that the international community keeps responding to people’s urgent needs, and that any new sanctions have concrete humanitarian exemptions. These must be monitored and implemented, or the most vulnerable people in Mali will pay the price.”

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