How many child marriages happen in the UK each year? Data explained as legal age rises to 18

It will now be illegal for under 18s in England and Wales to get married under a new law to tackle forced marriage - but how many kids have been impacted across England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ir

Child marriages: new rules will make it illegal for under-18s to get married in England and Wales (Images: NationalWorld/Kim Mogg)Child marriages: new rules will make it illegal for under-18s to get married in England and Wales (Images: NationalWorld/Kim Mogg)
Child marriages: new rules will make it illegal for under-18s to get married in England and Wales (Images: NationalWorld/Kim Mogg)

Child marriage will be banned in England and Wales after a new law raising the minimum legal age to 18 came into effect today (27 February).

The new rules will mean that 16 and 17 year olds will no longer be able to get married with their parents’ consent, as previously allowed. The move is designed to better protect children from forced marriages.

Campaigners have hailed the law change – which will now make it an offence to arrange for under-18s to be married in any circumstances, regardless of whether any force was used – as a “huge leap forward”. The law covers both legally-recognised and informal “traditional” ceremonies. Anyone found guilty of arranging a child marriage could face up to seven years in prison.

The prevalence of child marriage has declined dramatically throughout the 20th and 21st centuries – but while rare, analysis of official data shows hundreds of children aged under 18 are still married in legally-binding ceremonies every year across the UK.

Here we reveal everything you need to know about the issue of child marriage, including the gender, religion and previous marital status of the children involved and how the number of marriages has changed over time.

How many child marriages are there in England and Wales?

Data from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) shows 139 people aged 16 and 17 entered legally-binding opposite-sex marriages in 2019, the latest year with available data. They were among 1,608 teenagers (under 20s) who got married that year.

The ONS does not publish data on same-sex child marriages or on civil partnerships. However the figures do show that eight males and 31 females aged under 20 entered same-sex marriages in 2019.


While child marriage also affects boys, it is largely girls who are impacted. In 2019, four times as many female under 18s entered opposite-sex marriages compared to boys – 111 versus 28. The gap has been narrowing over time however as the number of child marriages has dropped.


The previous marital status of teen brides and grooms is also captured by the ONS. This shows that in 2002, one 16-year-old girl got married having previously been divorced. The last time a 17 year old remarried following divorce was in 2006. Under the old rules, 16 and 17 year olds needed their parent’s consent to get married, unless they had already been widowed.

The number of children getting married across England and Wales has fallen significantly over the past decade, from 388 to 139 – a drop of 64%. In 1999, 1,193 under 18s got married. It became increasingly common for under-18s to get married in the 1960s and 1970 with the number peaking at 29,935 in 1971.


The number of under 18s getting married increased in every decade between 1900 and 1960. While the population of England and Wales also increased over this time, the pattern remains when looking at child marriages as a proportion of all marriages.


The figures are not broken down by ethnicity. However, separate data produced by the ONS shows that of 214 religious marriages that took place between 2016 and 2018 involving 16 and 17 year olds, the most commonly represented denomination was Roman Catholic, accounting for 169.


How many child marriages are there elsewhere in the UK?

Figures from National Records Scotland show 18 under 18s got married in the country in 2021. In two marriages, both parties were aged under 18, while in 14 marriages just one of the couple was under 18. In all cases however the maximum age of the other party was 29.

Girls were similarly disproportionately represented in child marriages – four boys aged under 18 got married compared to 14 girls. The data for Scotland covers all marriages, not just opposite sex.

Relative to the size of the population, child marriages are more common in Scotland than they are in England and Wales. In 2019, 24 under-18s year olds were married in Scotland per 100,000 of the population, compared to 11 in England and Wales.


The number of children getting married in Scotland has similarly declined over the last decade, falling from 57 in 2011.

In Northern Ireland, 69 children aged 16 or 17 were married in 2019, according to data supplied to NationalWorld by the Northern Ireland Statistics and Research Agency (NISRA). That was the highest number for five years - in 2015 there were 68, in 2016 38, in 2017 52 and in 2018 49. This would not include same-sex marriages, which were not legal until 2020.

How many children are affected by forced marriages?

Official statistics on marriages involving under 18s can only capture legally-binding ceremonies. However, child marriage may involve informal services, which are not legally recognised but where youngsters are forced to live with an adult and act as their spouse.

In 2021, the government’s Forced Marriage Unit (FMU) reported intervening in 337 cases relating to forced marriage, female genital mutilation or both. Almost all (316) were solely about forced marriage. Of these 337 cases, 118 involved victims aged under 18, including 75 aged 15 or under.

The FMU says cases involving younger children may not involve imminent marriages, but can often involve a youngster being promised for a future marriage. They could also concern the younger siblings of somebody already at risk, or who was previously subject to a forced or child marriage.

The figures refer to cases the FMU has offered advice and support over, after receiving referrals from a range of sources including the police, social services, teachers and the NHS, or from friends, family and even the victim themselves. Higher numbers have been reported in previous years, before Covid led to restrictions on weddings and overseas travel.

This article previously contained alternative figures on child marriages in Northern Ireland cited by the PA news agency, which have since been replaced by data provided by the Northern Ireland Statistics and Research Agency (NISRA).

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