Leila has just finished first year at university. Like other young women her age, she wants to be a success and to live her own life. She’s bright and has lots of friends. She wants to be happy.
Leila is a survivor of forced marriage. When she was 17 her father said that she had to marry an older man. When she refused, he accused her of dishonouring her family. Her mother begged her to go along with the marriage, and her father began to lock her in the house, and threatened to take her out of school. Leila became worried and called IKWRO.
Last year IKWRO provided in depth support to 148 women and girls at risk of forced marriage and “honour” based violence. A forced marriage is a marriage where one or both parties do not, or are not able to, consent. Forced marriage isn’t a crime in the UK but since 2008 Forced Marriage Protection Orders have been used to protect those at risk. An order can be initiated by the police or a local authority and bans a person’s family from certain conduct such as coming near them, preventing them from going out or taking them overseas.
Unfortunately, in a recent report the Home Affairs Committee found that protection orders were frequently not followed up on, so it was unclear whether they were really protecting people. The Committee also reported that awareness of forced marriage and the protections available was still too low, especially in schools. Recently a teacher in a London school told IKWRO that while she had seen many cases of forced marriage she had never called the government Forced Marriage Unit. When asked what help she gave pupils, she said she simply offered “a shoulder to cry on”.
It isn’t just teachers who need to improve their response to forced marriage. Social workers, police, GPs and other professionals all have a role to play, and many are keen to learn. IKWRO is currently providing training on forced marriage in advance of the school summer holidays. Already the demand has been huge.
But organisations like IKWRO can’t reach all the professionals who need training or all the young people who are at risk. It’s up to the government to make sure that local authorities, schools, parents and young people are getting the message loud and clear that forced marriage is an abuse of human rights and will not be tolerated.
One way to get the message out would be to make forced marriage a criminal offence, as the Home Affairs Committee have recommended. IKWRO believes that if forced marriage became a crime this would act as a deterrent to parents and families, would give potential victims a better understanding of their rights and would help to ensure that the authorities take the issue seriously.
At the same time, some people including the solicitor Anne-Marie Hutchinson OBE who is a specialist in forced marriage fear that young people will be less likely to report forced marriage if it means their parents could be dragged through the criminal courts and end up in prison
IKWRO supports the committee’s recommendations to make forced marriage a crime, but we believe that forced marriage protection orders should also remain in place. We believe that this will give people who don’t want to go down the criminal route a means to protect themselves, whilst also sending out a stronger signal that forced marriage is wrong.