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

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

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

“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

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

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

“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


New Asset  
Sood: wants victims’ words

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

“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

“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

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

“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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