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OPINION: My sister was murdered as a child bride in the UK. This new law can save other girls’ lives.

by Payzee Mahmod | @IKWRO | IKWRO
Friday, 19 November 2021 13:00 GMT

Banaz Mahmod pictured a few months before her death. Photo supplied by Payzee Mahmod

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* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

I know exactly what it feels like to be a child bride, right here in Britain. I was 16 when my whole life was hijacked.

Payzee Mahmod is a survivor of honour based abuse and campaigner for the Iranian & Kurdish Women’s Rights Organisation (IKWRO)

British lawmakers’ vote on Nov. 19 to finally make child marriage illegal in England and Wales was a deeply emotional moment for me. I have dedicated my life to this crucial step forward.

The Marriage and Civil Partnership (Minimum Age) Law means that no child under 18 can be wed in England and Wales in a civil or religious marriage and that no child who lives here can be taken abroad to be married. This will deter families and communities from arranging child marriages. If they do, they could face up to seven years in prison. Safeguarding professionals will have to step in to protect at risk children.

“How would this law have helped you and your sister, Banaz?’ is a question I get asked so often, since I have been campaigning with IKWRO – Women’s Rights Organisation , Co-Chairs of Girls Not Brides UK to ban child marriage.

My answer is that I know exactly what it feels like to be a child bride, right here in Britain. I was 16 when my whole life was hijacked. I was so excited about starting college and making new friends. But just as that was about to happen, I was coerced into marriage with a man twice my age. Everything happened so quickly. I felt numb throughout. I kept wishing someone would step in and stop it. But in the space of just a few weeks, I had a religious ceremony in my family’s garden. Just like that, I was married, expected to take on all the responsibilities of a wife, as a child. A few weeks later, my child marriage was registered at a registry office in London.

A few months before, I had witnessed my sister Banaz going through the exact same thing; she was also a child, just 17. Neither of us understood we were victims of coercive control. We knew we didn’t want to be married, but how could we have stood up to our parents and said ‘no’ to being child brides? We simply couldn’t, there was a clear power dynamic that defeated us both.

Both Banaz and I were exposed to several forms of abuse and every aspect of our lives was controlled. A few months in, I learned that I was pregnant. It had to be pointed out to me. Although I had been to school in Britain, my family had prevented me from attending relationships and sex education, so I’d been left with little knowledge of my body and my rights.

During the time I was trapped within my child marriage, I came into contact with several professionals, who should and could have safeguarded me, but no teacher, nurse, social worker or police ever did. This is a part of my experience I struggle to live with; all of the adults that my sister and I came across simply failed us. On top of that, the law was not on our side. 

My sister and I were very close. It broke my heart to find out that she was going through abuse every day for the two years she was married. She desperately wanted to divorce her husband, but it was never going to happen. She bravely left her abusive marriage and returned to my parents’ home. She was heavily criticised for doing this as she was seen to be dishonouring our family and community. Within weeks she was receiving death threats. Tragically those threats were carried out and in 2006, she was murdered in a so-called ‘honour killing’.

If the law to ban child – finally brought to parliament by MP Pauline Latham as a Private Member’s Bill - had been in place when Banaz and I were girls, it would have saved me from the abuse that I am still healing from and it would have saved Banaz’s life.

Today I am filled with hope that all children will be safeguarded from the lifelong harms caused by child marriage, which I know too well and cost my young sister her life.

Related stories:

Child marriage survivors say UK law legitimises 'terrible' abuse

UK set to end legal loophole allowing child marriage

Lawmakers urged to ban child marriage in Britain

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