Plans by the government to criminalise forced marriage in the UK will put women and girls at even greater risk of violence. Forced marriages can only be tackled from within and by the community, with sufficient resources to support this work, says Sajda Mughal
“Marriage shall be entered into only with the free and full consent of the intending spouses.” Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Article 16 (2)
Forced marriage is a serious issue in the UK. The Forced Marriage Unit (FMU) received 1063 reports of possible forced marriages in the first six months of 2009 – an increase of 25% on the same period in 2008. The majority involved families of Pakistani background, with the rest originating from other parts of South Asia, Middle East, Europe & Africa. Nearly 40% of the cases dealt with by the FMU concerned people under the age of 18 and women and girls were the victims in 85% of the cases. And the numbers keep rising: in 2010 there were 1,735 potential forced marriages involving British citizens.
Recognising the need to address the issue of forced marriage, in 2007 the UK government passed the Forced Marriage Civil Protection Act “to make provision for protecting individuals from being forced to enter into marriage without their free and full consent and for protecting individuals who have been forced to enter into marriage without such consent; and for connected purposes.” The FMU was established as a joint-initiative of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and the Home Office.
However, the current government treats forced marriages primarily as an immigration issue, which underestimates the true extent of the issue. This approach does not tackle the fact that forced marriages are happening in the UK but remain a hidden problem. According to a report published by the Home Office Communications Directorate “with a small number of exceptions, none of the relevant service providers keep detailed figures on the number of cases of forced marriage they deal with”, which directly undermines genuine attempts to establish methods of successful intervention.
There are various challenges in combating forced marriages. Misconceptions about forced and arranged marriages prevail in the UK, and it is crucial to stress that an arranged marriage is one where both parties consent to the union, whilst a forced marriage is one where one or both parties are under physical or psychological pressure to enter the marriage. Various religious misconceptions about forced marriage need to be challenged, because contrary to popular belief, no religion endorses this practice. In Islam there are Hadith’s (practices) that condemn forced marriages and highlight that the consent, in particular a woman’s consent, must be sought.
Forced marriage is still a taboo subject in Asian and Muslim communities, one which few are willing to discuss outside their cultural environment, and one that must be challenged in order to deal with the many cases of forced marriage that stay hidden. In our experience the FMU figures do not reveal the extent of the problem. In the last three years, JAN Trust has consulted with nearly 1,000 Muslim and Pakistani women and 85% of them said that a forced marriage had occurred in their family (or they knew of individuals who had been in a forced marriage) and that the individuals involved were unhappy. Over 90% felt that a project was needed which specifically targeted the Asian and Pakistani communities. As one woman told us," forced marriages are not discussed in the Pakistani community. It is sad because they lead to bigger problems and ruin people’s lives. Something must be done…our community needs educating”.
The way forward has to be a participatory grassroots approach, because the current top-down government intervention is often perceived as a threat to the cultural heritage of minority groups. “It is the community who needs to tackle this issue. If the Government does it, it feels as though fingers are being pointed at us”. In our experience it is crucial to empower the mothers by educating them about forced marriage, because they are best placed to stop it from occurring. As one mother said,“If JAN Trust didn’t show me that forcing my daughter to marry someone was wrong then I dread to think what would have happened. I could have lost her for good, and no mother wants that.” Furthermore, combating forced marriages will also prevent other types of violent and serious crime, because research has shown that forced marriage is linked to domestic and sexual violence, as well as to people trafficking and prostitution.
We have worked for more than twenty years supporting black, Asian, minority ethnic, immigrant and refugee women to overcome the barriers to inclusion that they face in the UK. We have found that 97% of those seeking help and advice about forced marriages were Asians, and over 90% of them were from the Pakistani community in London and Slough. In response to these findings the Mujboor (Urdu for forced/desperation) project was first rolled out in April 2011 in order to eradicate the misconceptions of forced marriages and raise awareness of the issue in the Asian and Muslim communities. Taking an entirely new approach to this taboo issue, Mujboor works by running workshops and collaborating with faith leaders to reinforce the message that these inhumane acts are condemned in religion. As quoted from the Qur'an “O you who have believed, it is not lawful for you to inherit women by compulsion...” (4:19). Furthermore, a Hadith states that “Once a virgin girl came to the Prophet (PBUH) and said that her father had married her to a man against her wishes. The Prophet gave her the right to repudiate the marriage” (Abu Dawud). To enforce this message we invite respected Imams to our workshops on forced marriage where they educate the community on the issue from a religious perspective, and answer questions from the audience.
Many of our staff are women from similar ethnic minority backgrounds and can relate to the experiences of the women who come to us for help. Establishing trust with ethnic minority communities, and in particular with the Pakistani community, has been key. There has been some success in raising awareness of this taboo issue, eradicating misconceptions, and directing women to mainstream agencies such as the FCO Forced Marriage Unit. The Mujboor project will now be expanded across London, running workshops and providing a confidential first contact point for victims. This community based approach has raised the credibility of the project, as opposed to governmental approaches which fall short because their top-down approach often alienates communities and fails to take some cultural sensitivities into consideration.
However, despite the above, we have unfortunately faced a few barriers, especially from male members of the Pakistani community, when raising the taboo subject of inhumane forced marriages. Barriers include the denial of the issue even existing, and opposition to any involvement in the campaign. These attitudes manifest themselves in misinformed statements such as “I have never come across anyone who is in a forced marriage” or “Forced marriages do not happen in the Pakistani community”. We did not let this faze us, and eventually we overcame these barriers by discussing the issue with them, the nature and number of cases that we and the FCO forced marriage unit have dealt with, as well as making them aware of statistics which provide evidence that the Pakistani community has the highest rate of forced marriages in the UK.
We are committed to continue challenging these damaging attitudes by educating the community about the reality and the extent of forced marriages. What is apparent from our own experience and expertise, is that forced marriages can only be tackled from within, and by, the community. The government needs to invest resources into supporting this awareness raising and prevention work. In early 2011, the House of Commons Home Affairs Committee published a report on forced marriages, in which it urged the government to criminalise the act of forced marriage. “We believe that it would send out a very clear and positive message to communities within the UK and internationally if it becomes a criminal act to force—or to participate in forcing—an individual to enter into marriage against their will. ... We urge the Government to take an early opportunity to legislate on this matter.” Following this, David Cameron has recently announced that he wants to see forced marriages made a criminal offence in its own right.
We are deeply concerned about these developments, because we fear that this will put victims at even greater risk of physical and emotional violence and honour crimes if they decide to seek help. As forced marriages continue to be a very sensitive taboo issue in Asian and Muslim communities, coming forward and speaking out about this injustice is perceived as ‘washing one’s dirty linen in public’, bringing shame to the family and community. If speaking out will result in criminal prosecution, this threat to perceived ‘Izzath’ - ‘family honour’ - will be greatly increased, and victims will be under even greater pressure from their family and community to remain silent, as well as at a severe risk of retaliation acts if they do seek help. Additionally, in our experience, some victims do want future reconciliation with family members, and in particular their parents. In this situation, criminalisation may discourage victims from speaking out about the abuse they are suffering.
The British government provides insufficient funding for programmes dealing with forced marriages that are able to support victims appropriately, and it is these programmes that will be on the frontline of addressing the increasing danger to victims that can be expected as a result of any legislation criminalising forced marriages.
We, like many others, want to see a society where people, in particular women, have the confidence and right to say NO.