Making forced marriage a criminal offence risks “pushing the issue further underground”, an expert has warned as David Cameron announced a consultation on the idea today.
Resources could be better spent on raising awareness of forced marriage, said Rachael Clawson, development manager at disability safeguarding organisation the Ann Craft Trust, who co-wrote guidance last year on protecting people with learning disabilities from forced marriage.
Currently, forced marriage is not a criminal offence, but the civil courts can impose forced marriage protection orders to prevent people being forced into marriage or to otherwise protect victims.
“I can understand the argument for putting this in place, but I think resources could be better spent on raising awarenes,” said Clawson.
“I think making it a criminal offence is only going to push the issue further underground because victims will be that much more worried about getting their families in trouble.”
Clawson said more effective uses of resources could include a government-backed campaign and assurance that local safeguarding children and adults boards incorporate forced marriage into their agendas.
Many share Clawson’s view with 57% of respondents to a survey of statutory agencies, community groups and domestic violence charities earlier this year saying that making forced marriage a criminal offence would make it less likely that victims would seek help. The survey was conducted as part of University of Roehampton research into the feasibility of criminalising forced marriage.
“It is already very difficult for vulnerable young people and in particular women to seek support, help and advice in this situation,” said Luton All Women’s Centre’s response. “The fact that their family may be criminalised and face charges will be a step backwards as they will be even more reluctant to come forward.”
Thirty-one per cent of respondents said the effort of creating a specific criminal offence would be justified, with 60% favouring increased resourcing of services to protect women from violence.
There is also particular concern for adults with learning disabilities forced into marriage, who may not be able or willing to report their families due to their dependence.
“It would be incredibly difficult for vulnerable adults to criminalise their families because their personal care needs are so high and often dependent on their families,” said human rights activist Mandy Sanghera. “We really don’t have enough refuges for people with complex care needs – a lot of the ones existing for women and men aren’t set up for that kind of care.”
The government’s planned consultation, which would apply to England, Wales and Northern Ireland, comes despite the Home Office earlier this year rejecting the idea of making forced marriage a criminal offence. At that time, it highlighted concerns that victims would be less likely to come forward if it meant convicting their family.
The government also wants to make it a criminal offence to breach a forced marriage protection order, as happens in Scotland, where it is punishable by two years in jail.
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