At the moment 16- and 17-year-olds can marry with their parents’ consent. But campaigners warn some teenagers are being coerced into marrying too young.
Now the government has said it backs moves to protect them from what the former chancellor Sajid Javid described as “child abuse”.
A spokesman for the Ministry of Justice said: “The government supports raising the legal age for marriage to protect vulnerable children and will outline its next steps in due course.”
Mr Javid has said he will introduce a private member’s bill in the Commons next week to raise the current age limit, and is optimistic it could become law.
Mr Javid criticised what he said was the current legal “loophole” that saw teenagers forced into marriage.
“The British government is working tirelessly to end child marriage in the developing world and yet our own laws are permitting child marriage by the back door,” he told the Times.
“Indeed, when Bangladesh lowered the legal age of marriage from 18 to 16, ministers there were said to have directly pointed to our laws to justify their move.
“It’s clear that we must legislate to close this loophole so that vulnerable children cannot be pushed into such serious and life-changing commitments before they are ready.
“I’ve seen this myself in the community I was raised in, young girls expected to enter into marriage far before they were ready to, with painful consequences,” he said.
“Let’s call this what it is: child abuse.”
Mr Javid said he had looked at a change in the law when he was home secretary under Theresa May’s government.
The bill is expected to attract cross party support. Natasha Rattu, director of the charity Karma Nirvana, which campaigns on 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,” she told the Guardian.
“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.”