Forced Marriage: Legislation vs Prevention

Anokhi Madhavji

I was flicking through the Daily Telegraph recently and came across the headline "child aged two 'was at risk of forced marriage" - although outraged, I wasn't at all surprised. I continued reading…

The article reported that the government’s Forced Marriage Unit (FMU) had provided advice and support in cases of forced marriage involving 60 countries last year, according to new figures from the department. The research found that young people aged between 16 and 25 are most at risk of being forced into marriage. A two-year-old child was identified as a potential victim of forced marriage, and that the child, believed to be the youngest ever victim at risk of forced marriage in the UK, was among 250 children that were helped.

Following yesterday’s report, the Home Office Minister for Crime Prevention, Jeremy Browne, said:

“Forced marriage is a devastating form of abuse that is absolutely unacceptable in our society. The new figures show an alarming number of victims, including the young and vulnerable.”

What is classified as a ‘forced marriage?’

A forced marriage is ‘a marriage conducted without the valid consent of both parties where duress (emotional pressure in addition to physical abuse) is a factor’. There is however an on-going debate about whether the definition of forced marriage should be expanded in order to include those marriages where the victim is tricked into giving their consent, either through false information or the withholding of critical information.

What I think is equally important is recognising the difference between a forced marriage and a marriage which has been ‘arranged’. I might be stating the obvious here, but the two are often confused.

While arranged marriages are sanctioned and encouraged by many religions (including my own), forced marriage is not an accepted religious practice under any conventional faith. A forced marriage is undertaken either against the wishes of one or other individual involved (or both) or without their full and informed consent. Arranged marriages, on the other hand, involve consultation with both parties.

The Government and forced marriages

It has been refreshing to know that over the past decade forced marriage has moved consistently up the political agenda. The first sign that government was committed to engaging with forced marriage was the establishment by the Labour Government of the Working Group on Forced Marriage in 1999, which reported on the spread and prevalence of forced marriage across the UK. Following the Working Group’s report, the Government set up the Community Liaison Unit, renamed in 2005 as the Forced Marriage Unit (FMU). Also in 2005, the Government published a consultation on whether forced marriage should be criminalised: Forced Marriage: A wrong not a right.

Though the results of the consultation were inconclusive, the work instigated the Liberal Democrat Lord Lester to develop the Forced Marriage (Civil Protection Bill). This was designed to provide people with support and redress within the legal system, without going as far as criminalising forced marriage. The popularity of Lord Lester’s move was emphasised by the substantial cross party support that the bill received.

But where are we at now?

Although there is evidence that people are thinking about the issue, given how serious of an issue forced marriage is, one can only question why it has not received as much attention as it rightly should. The problem lies within the fact that many Government officials regard forced marriages as a ‘cultural’ issue, thus it becomes ignored more often than it does acknowledged. This attitude is then mirrored across the rest of society. Police officers, the people who many victims turn to when they are seriously at risk, turn young women away because they feel that “parents know best” or that this is a case which just requires some mediation with the family. However, it is not as simple as it may seem on the edge of the frontline. Forced marriages are not ‘cultural’; they are abuse.

In all fairness, over the past few years, the UK Government has indeed taken a strong line on forced marriage. It has advocated for action from the international community, using global forums such as the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting to lay out a courageous aspiration that we end forced marriage. David Cameron has declared the practice unacceptable and that the Government is to identify a means of preventing it and punishing its perpetrators. Although there is currently not a law against forced marriages, it is due to be debated and voted on in September of this year.

In his speech in October 2011, he said that forced marriage is ‘little more than slavery’ and promised to use the resources of government to bring an end to its practice within the UK and overseas. This was most definitely welcomed by most, but led many, including me, to question whether this would prove sufficient.

My question is, will legislation be enough?

Whilst some could claim that criminalising forced marriages may simply be an acknowledgment of the fact that social attitudes need to change; others may say that a law is symbolic in many respects. Not only will it give police officers a reason to take forced marriages as an issue, seriously; it will also demonstrate to victims that the law is on their side – precisely what is needed, right?

However, criminalising the practice, i.e. officially making it illegal, may make vulnerable young people less likely to report it, driving the practice further underground. It can be argued that getting victims to come forward is difficult enough. Victims might be less likely to contact statutory services if doing so would put family members at risk of being sent to jail.

Although, criminalising forced marriage would not make a criminal route the only option available to the victim. In providing evidence to the 2011 Home Affairs Committee, Family law practitioner Cris McCurley said:

“The argument that criminalisation would discourage reporting is also spurious; if the victim were given the choice of a civil or a criminal route (such as with the Protection from Harassment Act 1997) then they would have the protection, and the choice.”

Making forced marriage a criminal offence is a step in the right direction, and the Government should stand by its principles on this matter. However, it is important to treat the approach with caution. Whatever the outcome of the discussion later this year, the Government must show its commitment to the principles behind the actions it presents. It is crucial to ensure that the spotlight does not shift away from the end goal, and the focus therefore must not be on legislation at the expense of prevention.

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