It’s time to criminalise forced marriage
- By Charlotte Rachael Proudman
- Notebook - A selection of Independent views -, Opinion
- Wednesday, 21 December 2011 at 12:00 am
The number of forced marriages is rising every year in the UK. The Government’s Forced Marriage Unit alone dealt with 1735 cases in 2010. 70.9% of these involving families of Pakistani, Indian and Bengali background. 86% of victims were female and 35% were under 18. Of course, the Forced Marriage Unit’s figures do not reflect the full scale of the abuse, as many cases go unreported.
Forced marriage is an appalling and indefensible practice which is recognised in the UK as a form of violence against women and men, a serious abuse of human rights and, where a minor is involved, child abuse. Yet forced marriage is not illegal in the UK.
Concern for victims of forced marriage led to the Forced Marriage (Civil Protection) Act 2007, which provides a specific civil remedy called a Forced Marriage Protection Order (FMPO). FMPOs play an important role in protecting victims of a threatened or actual forced marriage from their families, although organisations working with victims of forced marriage report that breaches are common. In May of this year the Home Affairs Select Committee recommended that the government make forcing someone to marry a crime. In October the Prime Minister announced plans to do just that, and a public consultation on making forced marriage a specific criminal offence launched last week. I fully support the government’s plans.
Prior to practicing as a family law pupil at Coram Chambers, I undertook research into forced marriage at Cambridge University during 2010-2011. I interviewed women from South Asian communities, several of whom were survivors of forced marriage. Having repeatedly heard that victims of forced marriage do not want to criminalise perpetrators of forced marriage, often their families, and that making forced marriage a crime will deter victims from coming forward, I was surprised to find that all of the women I spoke to were strongly in favour of criminalisation. In fact they appealed to me to put forward their views and ensure their voices are heard amongst saturated political and media rhetoric, which appears to have falsely portrayed their views.
They argued that if forced marriage had been a criminal offence when they were forced to marry they would have used the law as a bargaining chip to negotiate with their parents. They believed that a criminal penalty would act as a deterrent, and also argued that legislation would have a symbolic function in sending a message to perpetrators that forced marriage is socially unacceptable. All of the women I spoke to said they wanted recognition of their rights and of the wrong that had been inflicted on them, and demanded that bringing perpetrators to justice and protecting victims should be prioritised over concerns about demonising the communities which practice forced marriage.
Those in opposition to criminalisation have argued that the criminal aspects of forced marriage – for example abduction, assault and rape – are already covered by existing criminal offences. Yet these offences do not tackle the control, persuasion, pressure, manipulation and threats that many women experience over time, and they do not offer justice to all – or even to many – victims of forced marriage.
One woman I spoke to, Sami*, was taken to Bangladesh at the age of 17 and subjected to emotional and psychological pressure over a number of weeks in order to force her to marry her cousin. Sami was told that the marriage was a duty to her parents and to God, and was warned that she would be rejected by her family and by the South Asian community if she did not go ahead with the marriage. When this failed her mother pretended to be ill, whilst her father held a knife to his throat. This immense pressure eventually led Sami to capitulate and enter into a forced marriage.
Sami’s forced marriage would not be illegal under the existing criminal law. Whereas annulment legislation in England and Wales and the Forced Marriage (Civil Protection) Act 2007 recognise psychological, financial and emotional coercion as forced marriage, criminal legislation does not. This gap can only be remedied by introducing a specific criminal offence of forced marriage which encompasses a range of coercive behaviours. Other countries have already done this. For instance, the Norwegian Criminal Code defines forced marriage as involving “recourse to violence, deprivation of liberty, undue pressure or other unlawful behaviour, or through the threat of such behaviour”.
Criminalisation of forced marriage will make it easier to take action against perpetrators, rather than making use of a patchwork of laws that are not specifically designed to tackle forced marriage, and it may also challenge the attitudes of those who perceive coercion – whether emotional, physical, financial or otherwise – to be acceptable.
Alongside a specific criminal offence of forced marriage, more must be done to challenge the practice within communities and to support victims. Increased funding is needed for groups such as the Iranian and Kurdish Women’s Rights Organisation, which works with victims of forced marriage and campaigns for a tougher response by government and by statutory bodies such as schools.
Many women who are victims of forced marriage feel terribly let down by our Government. It’s time for the Government to stop abrogating its responsibility and to safeguard the rights of women by making forced marriage a specific criminal offence.
*not the interviewee’s real name
Charlotte’s book ‘Forced and Arranged Marriage Among South Asian Women in England and Wales: Critically Examining the Social & Legal Ramifications of Criminalisation’ is availlable on Amazon.co.uk