Forced conversion and forced marriages across the Commonwealth

Baroness Berridge writes for PoliticsHome ahead of her Oral Question today in the House of Lords [Read the full debate] on ensuring the Commonwealth Communiqué’s commitment to eradicate forced marriage is realised and assessing its inter-relationship with forced conversion.


Early and Forced Marriages (EFM) are a major scourge across the Commonwealth. They are a brutal disruption of a child’s natural development and harm the education, and economic and social potential of millions of girls who would otherwise be a major contributor to the Commonwealth’s future. A World Bank study showed that increasing the number of girls in secondary education by 1% increases GDP by 0.3%. EFM denies the right of women to decide their own future and often endangers their lives and health.

Any marriage before the age of 18 is considered a forced marriage as individuals before the age of maturity lack the capacity to give informed consent. Currently 52% of women in the Commonwealth who are now over 18 were married before the age of 18. Approximately 8.8 million Commonwealth women are married as children every year. That is 24,000 girls every day or 17 girls every minute. This is a problem that affects boys as well as girls, with UNICEF estimating that the level of early marriage among boys is one-fifth of the global level amongst girls.

The Commonwealth has recognised the scale of the problem and commitments to end EFM were made in Commonwealth Heads of Government Communiqué’s in 2011, 2013, 2015 and 2018. The Kigali Declaration 2015 mandated and encouraged Commonwealth National Human Rights Institutions to engage with legislators, the judiciary and wider society to change legislation and prevent and eliminate EFM. Despite some successes in changing legislation in Gambia, Malawi and Tanzania the problem of EFM remains widespread.

During their time as chair of the Commonwealth the UK should take the lead on eliminating EFM. The Forced Marriage Unit, formed in 2005, is an excellent model that the UK should encourage and assist other Commonwealth members in replicating. The UK should also change the 1929 Age of Marriage Act, which forms the model for much of the Commonwealth and allows for marriage at 16 with parental consent. This law breaches the recommendations contained in the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child General Comment No.4.

Certain religious and other traditional practices are widely recognised as serving as forces that can perpetuate and EFM. These can manifest in a variety of ways, including the perceived importance of preserving family honour and girl’s virginity, which leads parents to push their daughters into marriage in order to prevent ‘immoral’ behaviour.

What is less widely recognised or analysed is the prevalence of forced conversions as a driver for forced marriages. Being a member of a religious minority often marks you as a target and leaves you with fewer avenues of redress and lower socio-economic power to protect yourself. Certain erroneous religious teaching can also be used to provide religious encouragement for the conversion of girls from a religious minority. All of these drivers are evident in Pakistan where it is currently estimated that 1000 young Christian and Hindu girls and kidnapped, forcibly converted and married off every year.

To draw wider attention to the problem of forced conversions and attendant forced marriages the Commonwealth Initiative for Freedom of Religion and Belief, of which I am Project Director, is launching a report on Forced Conversions and Forced Marriages in Sindh, Pakistan on Wednesday 6 June – the report can be previewed here.

We hope that this report will draw greater focus to the laudable, but sadly so far unsuccessful, efforts of Pakistani legislators who have attempted to tackle the blight of forced conversions. The report will hopefully encourage the UK and Pakistani governments to support legislators in their task and work together to end the suffering of thousands of young girls.

Baroness Berridge is a Conservative member of the House of Lords.