A bill that would ban child marriage in England and Wales will be presented to parliament for its second reading this week and has been welcomed by campaigners as a “huge stride” forward.
Currently, marriage and civil partnerships are legal at 16 and 17 with parental consent. This is not just out of step with international legislation but also a loophole that is “more often used as a mechanism for abuse”, according to Pauline Latham, MP, who will present her bill on Friday.
If adopted, it will have a “dramatic impact on so many young children, mostly girls but also some boys”, Latham said. “It could transform their life chances and their futures.”
“We are keeping everything crossed that it goes through on Friday and no one votes against it.”
Latham, a member of the international development committee, said ending child marriage was also critical for the UK’s international commitments.
“We can’t tell someone else to end child marriage if we are allowing it,” she said.
Sajid Javid had originally proposed the private member’s bill, but Latham picked it up after his promotion to the cabinet. The health secretary has said child marriages are associated with appalling abuses, including a heightened risk of domestic, sexual and “honour”-based violence, and described child marriage as “child abuse”.
Last year, about a quarter of the 753 cases dealt with by the UK’s forced marriage unit were of children under 18.
Between 2007 and 2017, 3,096 marriages involving children aged 16 and 17 were legally registered in England and Wales, according to the Office of National Statistics.
Campaigners say non-legalised religious marriages of children are even more common, which is why they want all child marriages, not just registered ones, criminalised.
Over the past year, domestic abuse charity Karma Nirvana dealt with 78 cases of child marriage in England and Wales. Only four of them were registered marriages, the group said.
Natasha Rattu, director of Karma Nirvana, said: “This is a huge stride towards ending child marriage. We haven’t managed to get a bill to this stage so far. We have had conversations with the government that are very positive. Come Friday, we will know whether we have got it over the line.”
If passed, the marriage and civil partnership (minimum age) bill would make it an offence to carry out “any conduct for the purpose of causing a child to enter into a marriage”, with a maximum sentence of seven years imprisonment. The minimum age for civil partnerships and marriage would be raised from 16 to 18 in England and Wales.
Diana Nammi, executive director at the Iranian and Kurdish Women’s Rights Organisation (IKWRO), said they had seen first-hand the lifelong harm caused by child marriage.
“Some of these child marriages get registered, though the vast majority do not, and, in all cases, the moment she is married, often to a much older man, the full weight of the expectations upon her as a wife fall on the child’s young shoulders.”
“Too often girls are failed by the adults and statutory professionals that should safeguard them. It’s wrong that the onus has been on the child to speak out in order to get protection. That’s why IKWRO has tirelessly campaigned for this landmark change in the law that will make it clear that no child should ever face child marriage and that it is the responsibility of safeguarding professionals to ensure this does not happen.”
Payzee Mahmod, a survivor of child marriage, who is now an IKWRO campaigner, said: “At the age of 16, I was robbed of my childhood, when I found myself standing in a wedding dress in a garden in London, facing a child marriage to a man twice my age, who I didn’t know.”
‘They see it in corridors, in bathrooms, on the bus’: UK schools’ porn crisis | Pornography
Barnardo’s works directly with children who are victims of abuse or display signs of harmful or risky sexual behaviour. In 2020-21, they worked with 382,872 children, young people, parents and carers.
In a recent survey of their frontline workers across England and Wales, staff reported a rise in the number of children participating in acts they have seen in pornographic videos, despite feeling uncomfortable or scared. They describe porn as having a “corrosive” effect on child wellbeing.
Child sexual abuse expert Sarah works with children who are displaying signs of inappropriate sexual behaviour. She also trains other professionals who work with children
“I started out as a primary school teacher eight years ago, and I’ve been worried about children seeing porn ever since. Children don’t have to be able to type to see porn – it can be sent to them or shown to them on someone else’s phone. They see it at school, in the corridors, in the bathrooms, on the bus. There is just no censor on any of it – one video leads to another. If you can imagine it, it exists as porn, and children are seeing it.
“I am working with a teenager who was sexually abused by a family member. This young person had been exposed to porn and it was perpetuating what the abuser told them – that this is normal, that it’s not abuse.”
She is particularly concerned, as are her colleagues, about the increasingly extreme nature of the porn freely available on mainstream sites.
“A common role play theme on porn sites is intra-familial abuse – on mainstream sites you will see fetishisation of grandad and granddaughter sex, or stepfathers and stepdaughters. This may lead to a young person not disclosing or getting the support they need. From both angles it is dangerous; it puts the child at risk and encourages the perpetrator.
“The impact of porn shows in children harming others or themselves because they either don’t understand or are so ashamed of sexual urges. Shame is very prevalent and is often hidden.
“We are working with a seven-year-old who has been exposed to porn and is now displaying sexualised behaviour. They had free rein on a device, and someone hadn’t deleted a browser history. Once a young person sees porn, they may feel a need to come back again and again – porn is designed to meet a need. That is a form of sexual abuse against that child.”
Brian* is a senior social worker who has worked with children for over 30 years
“Unfortunately, porn is a feature for the majority of the children who come into our service. The children we support are very damaged. They would be likely to have experienced multiple forms of abuse – sexual, physical and domestic. Porn in and of itself is not the cause of their behaviour but it becomes a compounding factor when it hits that history of vulnerability.
Adult sex offenders can give children a distorted rationalisation for their behaviour, and the messages that are given through porn then fit with that distortion.
Lucy* has worked within the field of child sexual abuse for 16 years.
“We know children find porn distressing – they are telling us that themselves. We have done research with children in schools so that we have a cohort to compare our vulnerable children to, and they are saying the same thing.
“This is not what could be described as erotic or soft porn. They may start on porn sites and quickly begin to see very hardcore material. Or [extreme material] lands in their social media feeds, and they can then feel compelled to go back and look again.
“Children are less able to manage sexual arousal, and this material is designed to be arousing. Lots of children can feel guilty and distressed by what they see. We have 14-year-olds telling us they have to watch it as soon as they wake up. They describe being preoccupied with accessing porn to an extent that impacts upon their day-to-day life.
“We also regularly work with children with learning disabilities, another group vulnerable to the harm of porn. They may be shielded from sexual information and then reach 13 or 14 and take away the wrong learning from porn. They may learn that no means yes, that if you persist, women will enjoy forced sex. These messages are harmful for any child but for children with learning needs or who have developed unhealthy beliefs around sex as a result of abuse, it’s particularly bad.
“After lockdown, we began to get more calls from parents where there is no other obvious trauma, just the exposure to porn. I’ve been doing this 16 years, and children have far more access to porn now.”
* Names and some details have been changed to protect identities
French centre-right tilts toward Pécresse
Valérie Pécresse, a moderate conservative who has likened herself to former British and German leaders Margaret Thatcher and Angela Merkel, has emerged as a front-runner in primaries in France’s centre-right Les Républicains party, Reuters reports. “I won’t flinch. I have a project for a clean break, a project for the unashamed right,” she said Thursday, ahead of elections against liberal incumbent Emmanuel Macron and far-right contenders in spring.
Poland plans to set up register of pregnancies to report miscarriages | Poland
Poland is planning to introduce a centralised register of pregnancies that would oblige doctors to report all pregnancies and miscarriages to the government.
The proposed register would come into effect in January 2022, a year after Poland introduced a near-total ban on abortion.
This has raised serious concerns among women’s rights activists, who believe that in light of the abortion ban, the register could be used to cause legal difficulties for women who have self-administered abortions.
The draft legislation is part of a wide-ranging project to update the medical information system in Poland.
“It’s about control, it’s about making sure that pregnancies end with birth,” Natalia Broniarczyk, an activist from Aborcyjny Dream Team told the Polish weekly Gazeta Wyborcza.
The plan prompted online protests. A social media initiative titled “I’d like to politely report that I am not pregnant” encouraged Polish women to email photos of their used sanitary pads, tampons and underwear to the Polish ministry of health.
The ministry has strongly denied the project amounts to a centralised pregnancy register, with a spokesperson saying the changes are simply part of wide-ranging digitalisation project that will update the way data about a multitude of conditions, including allergies, is stored.
The spokesperson said doctors always had information on pregnancies, but before it was stored on paper by hospitals, rather than centrally by the government.
The concerns of activists about the register grew considerably after a bill proposed by the government that would establish an “institute of family and demographics” passed first reading in the Polish parliament by one vote on Thursday.
The institute would aim to monitor family policy, pass opinion on legislation and educate citizens on the “vital role of family to the social order” and the importance of “cultural-social reproduction” in the context of marriage. The institute would have access to citizens’ personal data and prosecutorial powers in the realm of family law, prompting worries it could be used to enforce the country’s strict abortion law.
The project has drawn widespread criticism from Polish academics and civil rights advocates.
“Maybe just call it the ‘Red Center of Rachel and Leah’,” a feminist organisation from Łódź said in an Instagram post, referencing Margaret Atwood’s dystopian novel The Handmaid’s Tale. In the novel the Rachel and Leah Center is a training facility for women designated to be “breeders” by the authoritarian regime.
The committee of demographic researchers at the Polish Academy of Sciences has issued a statement expressing concerns that the “pro-natalist propaganda” would take precedent over scientific research at the institute.
“The project aims exclusively to promote traditional model of family,” Adam Bodnar, Poland’s former ombudsman for citizen rights, told the Polish news website Oko.press. “It could also become a tool against those who fall outside this model, for example those who do not conform to heteronormative norms.”
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