Ending forced marriage in the UK: the problem with top down policy

As the GIRL Summit opens in London today, Sajda Mughal argues that the failure to include working with perpetrators and changing mindsets in affected communities on the agenda, means that the root of the problem will not be addressed.

Sajda Mughal
22 July 2014

Forced marriage is a gross violation of human rights which perpetuates cycles of abuse and poverty worldwide.  The practice continues to plague the UK, and places thousands of victims in situations characterised by physical and emotional violence each year.

In 2013, the Home Office’s Forced Marriage Unit gave advice and guidance in 1302 cases. 73% of these cases involved young people between 16 and 25 years old and 15% were under the age of 16.  88% of cases involved women and girls.  However, as a women’s charity working directly with forced marriage victims, we know that the number of victims is likely to be far higher.  The majority of cases are shrouded in secrecy, victims purposefully avoid statutory agencies for fear of repercussions, and the communities where this practice is prevalent are notoriously hard to penetrate. This is reflected in official estimates which place the number of victims in the UK each year between 5000 and 8000.

In 2011, British Home Secretary Theresa May announced that it was time to reject ‘perceived cultural sensitivities’ and tackle the problem by making forced marriage a criminal offence. As of the 16th of June 2014, the practice is now illegal in the UK under the Anti Social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Act 2014, leaving perpetrators who ‘use violence, threats or any other form of coercion,’ to force victims into marriage facing up to 7 years in prison. This includes taking someone abroad to be married (whether the marriage takes place or not), and marrying someone who lacks the mental capacity to consent to marriage (whether they are pressured to do so or not). The law protects victims of every age, and the civil remedy of obtaining a Forced Marriage Protection Order continues to exist alongside the new legislation so that victims can choose how they want to be assisted.  Breaching a Forced Marriage Protection Order is also now a criminal offence punishable by up to 5 years in prison.

Although many in the wider community believe that the legislation will contribute to ending the practice, we, as a women’s charity who have worked directly with victims, perpetrators and communities since 1989, know that this will not be the case.  We believe that the law will place victims in even greater danger and deter them from seeking help in situations which are already particularly hard to reach. When we surveyed a 1000 women and girls in the Pakistani community (statistically the most at-risk demographic)  in London and Slough, 77% said they would not want to report a case of forced marriage if there was a possibility that their parents would face imprisonment. Although we may see perpetrators as criminals committing abhorrent human rights abuses, more often than not, victims do not see their parents in this way and consistently avoid contact with statutory agencies.

The new legislation will drive the issue further underground. The majority of victims who we work with are also terrified of the repercussions they may face as a result of disclosing their situation to authorities. Reprisals can range from ostracism from the community to acid attacks, and even murder. This fear of reprisals, and the value placed on upholding the honour of the community, also deters possible witnesses from reporting or testifying against perpetrators. A pertinent example of this is the case of Shafilea Ahmed’s murder in 2003. After witnessing their sister’s brutal honour killing at the hands of their parents, only one out of four siblings was willing to testify against them in court. 

Furthermore, in order for perpetrators to avoid penalties, victims are telling us that they will be at further risk of being taken abroad to marry at an earlier age, or with no warning whatsoever. We are also hearing elderly voices in the community telling us  this. This places young children at serious risk of harm, and puts victims in a situation where they have no opportunity to seek help before it is too late.

We believe that many of the problems that have both affected and been caused by the Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) laws in the UK - the Female Genital Mutilation Act 2003 which replaced the Prohibition of Female Circumcision Act 1985 -  will plague the new forced marriage legislation.  Although FGM was criminalised in the UK nearly 30 years ago, and despite over 140 referrals to the police in the last 4 years, the first prosecution was not made until April 2014 when a doctor from the Whittington Hospital, London was charged with the offence.

The effective implementation of FGM legislation in the UK is hindered by problems in reporting and identifying cases, and a lack of evidence to actually take cases to court. Victims have not reported cases, witnesses have been unwilling to testify against perpetrators, there have been issues in identifying perpetrators amongst the wider community, and front line professionals lack knowledge about the issues surrounding FGM and how to respond effectively to cases.   

FGM and forced marriage are an agglomeration of taboo issues surrounding gender, race, honour, sexuality and violence, and for this reason there needs to be a proper understanding that law does not operate in isolation from community factors and civil remedies.  We believe that there is a vital need for the training of professionals in the multi-agency response strategy. Increased guidance when dealing with cases, effective awareness raising and education on the issues surrounding forced marriage in order to change mind sets, more direct work with communities and perpetrators themselves, holistic support for victims who have left forced marriage situations, and additional funding within the sector are essential to implement this successfully.

Victims need to be aware of the options available to them if they do not want to prosecute their parents and be supported with their decision. This includes knowing how to pursue civil routes such as obtaining a Forced Marriage Protection Order under the Forced Marriage Civil Protection Act 2007, and receiving the necessary guidance, as well as the steps which must be implemented if a victim decides to leave a forced marriage situation.

The JAN Trust, based in Haringey, London, has worked with BAMER communities for over 25 years to help them overcome the barriers to inclusion they face within the UK.  We take a bottom up approach to campaigning and advocacy on forced marriage by focusing our energies in the community. The top down approach from the government is often perceived as a threat by 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.” 

From our experiences, it is most effective to educate mothers and members of the community about forced marriage and change their mindsets as they are the people who are in the best position to prevent this practice from happening.  We launched our Against Forced Marriages campaign in 2011 in order to eradicate common misconceptions surrounding the practice within Asian and Muslim communities as well as with young people, teachers, police and other professionals. We work towards dispelling myths surrounding forced marriage, seek to educate society and give victims a voice in order to tailor healthier support responses.  By working in partnership with communities we have a beneficial overview of what victims believe, the support required and evolving public attitudes.

We need to go to the root of the problem: the minds of those inflicting the practice who tend to be the parents and siblings. They often force their child into the marriage with the mind set of ‘family izzat/honour’; controlling unwanted behaviour or sexuality; maintaining land and wealth in the family; community and/or family pressure and protecting ‘cultural’ or ‘religious’ ideals. We are the only charity in the UK to work with these perpetrators in order to change these mind sets surrounding forced marriage; One ex perpetrator (mother) who we worked with appeared in an ITV interview speaking about how she broke away from her cultural expectations. She engaged with us as our staff who are women from similar ethnic minority and religious backgrounds. We changed her mind set on the issue. This was not an overnight process but a lengthy process including in depth discussions in person at any time – day, evening and weekends and by phone. An imam was utilised in order to exert a positive influence and highlight forced marriages are in no way a religious practice and completely condemned in Islam. This was important to do as this mother (and many other cases such as hers) have a misconception that forced marriages are within Islam. She now thoroughly regrets the terrifying and traumatic ordeal (including physical and emotional abuse) she placed her daughter through. She says in the interview: “It was like a bad dream. Nothing comes above your children. I ruined by own daughters life and people are still doing this”. We also worked to support this woman's daughter, the victim, throughout.

Today, the UK government and UNICEF is holding an international GIRL Summit in London on female genital mutilation and early/forced marriage, with the aim of “bringing together community leaders, grassroots organisations, governments, international organisations and the private sector to end FGM and CEFM in a generation, everywhere, forever”.

We'll be there in order to share our best practice working with affected communities - Asian and Muslim - and with both victims and perpetrators. It will also give us an opportunity to hear from others across the world working on this issue. Though the conference has merit by raising awareness of this issue, but  there is no mention on the programme of working with perpetrators and of changing the mind sets in affected communities. By not having this key element on the agenda we will not get to the root of the problem. Raising awareness through a one day closed (no public members) conference is simply not enough to rid this problem in a ‘generation, everywhere, forever’. 



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