The government has committed to raising the minimum legal age of marriage to 18 in England and Wales in a victory for campaigners.
Currently, 16 and 17-year-olds can marry with parental consent, but a coalition of charities has warned that this legal loophole is being exploited to coerce young people into child marriage.
In a letter to campaigners from the Ministry of Justice, shared with the Guardian, it said it was committed to raising the minimum legal age to 18 “as soon as legislative opportunity arises”.
The news came as Sajid Javid, the former chancellor, told the Times he would introduce a private member’s bill next week making it illegal for under-18s to marry.
Last month, the four co-chairs of the coalition Girls Not Brides UK wrote a letter to the prime minister warning that the current law on forced marriage law did not go far enough to protect young people.
The Conservative MP Pauline Latham has recently held meetings with ministers, including the justice secretary, Robert Buckland, to discuss the issue, including a proposal for a new criminal offence for adults who aid, abet or procure marriages for children.
On Thursday, a justice minister, Lord Wolfson, wrote to the Iranian and Kurdish women’s rights charity IKWRO; Karma Nirvana, which campaigns against forced marriage; Forward, anAfrican women-led organisation working to end gender violence; and the Independent Yemen Group; saying: “The government supports raising the legal age for marriage in England and Wales to protect vulnerable children living here.
“[It is] committed to making sure children and young people are both protected and supported as they grow and develop in order to maximise their potential life chances. This includes having the opportunity to remain in education or training until they reach the age of 18.
“Child marriage and having children too early in life can deprive them of these important life chances.”
The letter said the department would consult with the Home Office on whether a new criminal offence was needed or whether the existing law on forced marriage could be amended.
Natasha Rattu, director of Karma Nirvana, which has protected girls as young as 11 from child marriage, said: “We are delighted that after relentless campaigning the government has listened to our joint calls to end child marriage by committing to raising the legal age to 18.
“But while this is a huge step in the right direction, it remains imperative the government also makes child marriage a crime.
“This would ensure maximum safeguards against all forms of child marriage and sends out the strongest possible message that child marriage is not accepted or tolerated by our government.”
Diana Nammi, founder of IKWRO, which has been campaigning to ban child marriage for more than a decade, said the loophole allowing children to marry with parental consent – introduced before the second world war to protect families’ reputations and land – left youngsters vulnerable to parental coercion.
“What we need to see now is confirmation from the government of when and how the change in the law will be implemented. There is no time for delay while children in the UK continue to be coerced into child marriage – a harmful and hidden practice that has been exacerbated by the pandemic,” she said.
Payzee Mahmod, a survivor of child marriage who was wed in London at the age of 16, said: “While I’m celebrating this news from the government, we now need to make sure every type of child marriage is banned.
“It is crucial child marriage is made a crime so young people are protected from every type of marriage, including religious and cultural non-registered marriages, and to prevent British men from marrying children from abroad.”
Mahmod’s sister, Banaz, was murdered in an “honour” killing after leaving the husband her family chose for her when she was 17.
IKWRO said it was working with other human rights organisations to push for a ban on child marriage in Scotland, where the law allows young people to marry from 16 without parental consent.
Latham said she was thrilled at the government’s response to her calls to end child marriage. She introduced a bill last year to raise the minimum legal age of marriage but its progress was stalled by the Covid-19 pandemic.
“I hope the government’s legislative proposals will eliminate child marriage in the UK and send a clear message to other countries that the practice cannot be tolerated,” she told the Guardian.
US secretary of state Antony Blinken affirmed his country’s support to conduct additional investigations into the origins of the Covid-19 after meeting with the head of the World Health Organization, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, on Wednesday, Reuters reported. “He stressed the need for the next phase to be timely, evidence-based, transparent, expert-led, and free from interference,” a US state department spokesperson said in a statement.
The 78-year-old American president is known to be prone to verbal gaffes and slips of the tongue, for which he is usually criticized or mocked by some people on social media.
US President Joe Biden appeared to confuse former US President Barack Obama for another former US president, Donald Trump, in a Wednesday speech, but swiftly corrected himself and suggested that the mistake was a “Freudian slip”.
“Back in 2009, during the so-called Great Recession, the president asked me to be in charge of managing that piece, then-President Trump,” Biden said while addressing the public in Pennsylvania. “Excuse me, Freudian slip, that was the last president. He caused the…anyway, President Obama, when I was vice-president.”
Others argued that the 46th president does not know what a Freudian slip really is.
Biden was in Pennsylvania on Wednesday speaking at a Mack Truck assembly plant in Lehigh Valley, promoting his administration’s new measures to encourage US citizens and companies to “buy American”. Particularly, he announced plans to modify the 1933 Buy American Act that requires federal firms and agencies to purchase goods that have at least 55% US-made components.
Under the Biden plan, the threshold will be increased to 65% by 2024 and to 75% by 2029.
During the 11-day war between Israel and Palestinian militants in May 2021, Israeli airstrikes destroyed five multi-storey towers in the heart of Gaza City. The images of buildings crumbling to the ground flashed across TV channels around the world as Gaza faced the most intense Israeli offensive since 2014. At least 256 Palestinians were killed, including 66 children, and 13 in Israel, including two children. Israel claimed it was destroying the military capabilities of Hamas, who had fired rockets at Israel after weeks of tension in Jerusalem over the planned displacement of Palestinian residents and police raids on al-Aqsa mosque during Ramadan.
Each time Israel said it was targeting Hamas and that it had warned the residents first. But what is it like to have only a few minutes to evacuate before watching your life collapse into rubble?
In conjunction with the civilian harm monitoring organisation Airwars, the Guardian spoke with dozens of residents and gathered footage and photos to piece together the story of one building, al-Jalaa tower, demolished by an Israeli airstrike on 15 May 2021. These are the stories from inside the tower, of the Mahdi clan, who owned and lived in the building, the Jarousha family and the Hussein family.
Israeli airstrikes in Gaza hit a 12-storey building in the early hours of 12 May 2021. Clockwise from top left: Israeli airstrikes in Gaza hit a 12-storey building in the early hours of 12 May 2021; a 13-storey residential block collapses in the Gaza Strip on 11 May 2021; an Israeli airstrike on Gaza City, 14 May 2021; smoke rises following an Israeli strike on al-Shorouq tower in Gaza City, 12 May 2021.
The story of al-Jalaa tower
The upscale Rimal area of Gaza City and its multi-storey towers had suffered since the bombing began. Though al-Jalaa was thought to be safe, night-long bombing had terrified its residents, who struggled to sleep. Fearing the impact of blasts, families had been sleeping in hallways away from the windows.
Children from al-Jalaa tower get ready to sleep in the hallway of the building for safety. Photo: Issam Mahdi
Al-Jalaa tower was built in 1994 as part of a property boom sparked by the landmark Oslo peace agreements between the Palestinians and Israelis.
The first five floors were offices, with floors six to 10 inhabited by families. On floor 11, the top floor, were the Gaza offices of the Associated Press and Al Jazeera, two of the world’s largest media companies. The ground floor had two levels of shops and beneath it was a car park.
Many of the residents came from the Mahdi family, including the building’s owner Jawad and his son Mohammed.
After each marriage in the Mahdi clan the new family settled into the tower. Jawad, 68, had traded in Israel before 2007 when the Jewish state blockaded Gaza after the Islamist group Hamas seized control of the territory. Since then he has run his clothes company in Gaza.
The whole family had huddled together into a few apartments on the sixth floor for safety, but were about to be scattered as they rushed to evacuate.
As Jawad searches through the rubble he finds a single folder. It contains pictures of his wedding day.
Jawad Mahdi with a photograph of his wedding day, found amid the rubble of al-Jalaa tower. Photo: Mohammed Mahdi
Mohannad and Suzanne’s cats were never found. “I still don’t know their fate until today,” Mohannad says. “Every day from the moment it was destroyed I was going to the building listening for any sound.”
Suzanne says their lives will never be the same. “Everything you love is gone – it doesn’t matter about the cupboards and beds and things. There are things my kids had when they were babies, clothes that I had from when I was a child – these were memories. There was a box with all the things from my father, god rest his soul, his glasses and mobile and pictures. Where am I going to get things like that again?
“We have become people without memories or mementoes. What is a person without those? If you have no memories you feel like you never lived.”
Walid Hussein, the engineer who had returned with his family from years living in the US, has become like a ghost. He has not a single document to prove who he is. Sometimes he thinks about going back to the US for his children, but he has his elderly mother in Gaza to support. He doesn’t want to have to make a choice. He shares his hopes for a peaceful future in Gaza:
“This is all we are asking for, to live a peaceful life. Very peaceful life, it means security, it means no harm to anybody, it means don’t touch my kids – not because you have this technology and this kind of weapon you bomb all of us from the air.”
Joe Dyke heads the investigation team at the civilian harm monitoring organisation Airwars Anas Baba is a freelance reporter and photographer based in Gaza