Special report on government plans to make forced marriage a criminal offence

    Over 1,000 people are forced into marriages every year including
    an increasing number of girls as young as 14, according to
    campaigners, writes Maria Ahmed.

    The largely hidden problem is being brought into public view as
    the Home Office launches a consultation on proposals to make forced
    marriage a criminal offence.

    Announcing the consultation, Home Office minister Baroness
    Scotland called forced marriage “an abuse of human rights and
    a form of domestic violence which cannot be justified on religious
    or cultural grounds”.

    But she admitted it was an issue “with no clear or easy
    answers.”

    Rushed through

    The consultation has been broadly welcomed by campaign groups at
    the forefront of the forced marriage lobby, but they caution
    against “rushing” the legislation.

    Pioneering Asian women’s organisation Southall Black
    Sisters was among groups that helped to block an amendment to the
    Domestic Violence Bill to make forced marriages a criminal offence
    last year.

    Hanana Siddiqui, joint co-ordinator of SBS, says her
    organisation opposed the amendment because she felt there had been
    a lack of consultation.

    The amendment proposed by Ann Cryer MP was dropped after the
    then Home Secretary David Blunkett said he wanted to seek the wider
    views of the community before making a decision.

    “We did not want to see this law rushed through as this is
    a complex issue,” Siddiqui says.

    Attack on communities

    She argues that while the new proposal could provide victims
    with a “weapon” to protect themselves, it could also
    deter people from reporting forced marriages for fear of
    criminalising their parents.

    “While victims might go to the police for protection now,
    they may not if they think the case will go further.”

    There are also concerns that the proposed law could
    disproportionately impact on ethnic minority communities and be
    misinterpreted as an attack on those communities.

    Echoing the views of the government and other organisations,
    Siddiqui points to the “difficult” political climate
    following the London bombings.

    “Muslims feel under attack, and there is a fear that the
    law could be used to target and harrass communities. It is up to
    the police and other authorities to challenge racism and show they
    are accountable.”

    Few prosecutions

    Siddiqui also warns that more victims could be taken abroad to
    have forced marriages by families who want to avoid being
    convicted.

    Campaigners are also sceptical that the proposed law may not be
    applied effectively because of authorities’ “poor track
    record” of prosecuting for offences relating to forced
    marriages under existing laws.

    While there is currently no specific criminal offence of
    ‘forcing someone to marry,’ the law provides protection
    from crimes committed when forcing someone into a marriage,
    including kidnap, false imprisonment, assaults, harassment,
    assaults, child cruelty, sex offences, failing to ensure attendance
    at school and murder.

    But despite the laws there have been very few prosecutions.

    Political correctness

    Siddiqui questions whether the proposed law would be effective,
    pointing out that the government has failed to get “even
    simple things right” in the current application of domestic
    violence laws.

    “When it comes to victims from ethnic minority
    communities, domestic violence is still not seen as a crime but as
    some sort of cultural practice. There is a fundamental problem in
    the way women from these communities are perceived which needs to
    be addressed.”

    Jasvinder Sanghera, a former forced marriage victim who is now
    co-ordinator of South Asian women’s project Karma Nirvana,
    also points out that political correctness makes police and welfare
    agencies reluctant to intervene for fear of offending
    communities.

    “Many victims of forced marriage experience emotional
    trauma, rape, maiming or burning. This is a human rights issue and
    the perpetrators must be held to account,” she says.

    “The legislation should be enforced to empower victims and
    send messages to the community that forced marriages will not be
    tolerated.”

    Magic remedy

    Siddiqui cites a lack of supporting evidence as the main reason
    why so few prosecutions have gone ahead under existing laws.

    “If there is no medical evidence, it’s hard to
    corroborate the victim’s account.”

    Siddiqui also points out that victims have not been able to
    access and use the law because of a lack of resources and
    support.

    “The government needs to make providing the right support
    and information a priority if the law is to be used
    effectively.

    “Regardless of what happens with the proposed law, there
    needs to be more resources for victims. The law should not be seen
    as a magic remedy, but just one among a range of
    remedies.”

    Denial

    New Asset  
    Sood: wants victims’ words
    taken
                   seriously

    Usha Sood, a barrister dealing with forced marriage cases, and
    lecturer at Nottingham Trent University, says there has been a lack
    of prosecutions under existing laws because families “go into
    denial,” making it hard to catch the perpetrators.

    “There needs to be better understanding of family
    hierarchies and patriarchy, along with a realisation that female
    family members such as mothers, aunts and grandmothers may not be
    supportive of freedom of consent.”

    Sanghera points to her own experience of being intimidated with
    personal threats because of her outspokenness on forced marriages
    as an example of the level of denial.

    “The most resistance comes from people who don’t
    want to accept these issues exist, and the saddest thing for me is
    that it’s coming from members of my own community.”

    Sood wants to see the victim’s word taken with
    “utmost seriousness” where the perpetrators are in
    denial.

    “The victim’s word should be strong enough to lead
    to a conviction,” she says, suggesting that perpetrators
    should be jailed for up to seven years for forced marriage offences
    involving violence.

    Scratching the surface

    Sood also proposes a challenge to the “self-appointed
    custodians of religion” in some communities who carry out
    marriage ceremonies without the proper consent of the
    participants.

    “Every religious ceremony must require consent as an
    indispensable requirement.”

    Welfare agencies must also improve their approach to the
    problems caused by forced marriages, according to campaigners.

    “Agencies are just scratching the surface in many cases,
    and unless they learn to identity the issues early on victims may
    not be able to get the help they need.

    “Proper implementation of guidance for welfare agencies
    has to underpin any developments in the law,” Sanghera
    says.

    While the final shape of the law is yet to evolve, campaigners
    agree that the victim’s interest must lie at the heart of any
    reforms.

    “The final outcome must depend on whether the benefits to the
    victim outweigh the losses,” Siddiqui says. “This
    should be about the victim’s gain.”

     

     

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