A vital step forward in the fight for universal human rights and against cultural relativism
I strongly welcome the government’s announcement last week that forced marriage will become a criminal offence in the UK. It is a historical achievement in the fight for women’s human rights and against cultural relativism and racism.
Forced marriage is a violation of human rights and leads to rape, domestic violence, forced child bearing and even ‘honour’ killing. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights stipulates that “marriage shall be entered into only with the free and full consent of the intending spouses,” and the UN Convention on the elimination of discrimination against women recognises that “a woman’s right to choose a spouse and enter freely into marriage is central to her life and her dignity and equality as a human being.” Yet despite these declarations, forced marriages continue at an alarming rate in many regions of the world, particularly South Asia, the Middle East and parts of Africa and Eastern Europe. They also occur within diaspora communities in the west, including in the UK.
Under UK law victims of forced marriage can get a court order to protect them, but until now perpetrators of forced marriage have avoided criminal responsibility, assisted by those who argue that criminalisation will stigmatise minority communities and increase racism. In fact, we believe that it is racist to expect girls from minority communities to endure practices which would be considered as abuse if they were carried out on white English girls. Moreover, fear of racism does not justify our failure to call forced marriage what it is – a crime. The new law is for everyone, not just minority communities, and it will mean that from now, families who force their daughters or sons into marriage will be prosecuted and sent to prison, whatever community they are from. This is a strong message to perpetrators, and it is a vital step forward in the fight for universal human rights and against cultural relativism
Some organisations and campaigners have argued that making forced marriage a crime will deter victims from coming forward. We are concerned about the message that this sends to young people, for it suggests that they should not seek help if it means that their family members will be punished, when their parents have been happy to imprison and torture them in a marriage that they do not want. IKWRO believes in empowering young people to stand up for their rights and we want to challenge this message very clearly. From our perspective, the new law should empower young people and women with the knowledge that what is happening to them is wrong and that the law is on their side. It gives victims the choice to take criminal action if that is what they want, but civil protection will still be available for victims and no one will be forced to support criminal charges against their will. Victims of forced marriage need have no fear in coming forward; the law is on their side.
We believe that making forced marriage a crime will also help to improve protection for victims, by raising awareness among professionals who work with those at risk. Forced marriage often requires a child protection response (a quarter of the cases handled by the government’s own Forced Marriage Unit involve children aged under 16) and training for professionals including teachers, social workers, medical professionals and the police should be compulsory. Alongside improving the response by the statutory sector, specialist organisations and refuges for young people who are affected by forced marriage play a vital role and they need sustainable funding to continue supporting victims.
IKWRO is aware that marriages involving girls under the age of 16, as well as adult women who are not marrying of their own free will, are conducted in mosques in the UK. Some mosques will even conduct marriages where the girl is not present, as long as a male relative consents on her behalf. The government must put an end to these practices by making registration of all marriages compulsory.
Opponents of criminalisation have also argued that in the current climate with limited resources the government should focus on prevention. In fact criminalisation will prevent forced marriages, by challenging complacency and changing attitudes within communities where it is practiced. It sends a clear message to parents that if they force their children into marriage they are committing a criminal act and will be prosecuted. It will also empower those who do not want to force their children into marriage to resist pressure from the wider family and community members. There are many people from minority communities who do not support forced marriage and criminalisation will give them more confidence to stand up against it.
For too long, violence against women and girls from minority communities has been tolerated in the name of misplaced cultural sensitivity. IKWRO has handled cases where social workers and teachers have failed to protect girls because they think that practices such as forced marriage, ‘honour’ based violence and female genital mutilation should be respected as part of the community’s ‘culture’. Police officers have failed to investigate accusations of ‘honour’ based violence and even ‘honour’ killings. I myself approached the police after a woman I knew was taken to Iraq and murdered there, but they refused to investigate. This is itself racist – they would never have reacted this way if an English woman had been taken abroad and murdered.
Even judges have undermined women’s human rights in the name of “culture”. Heshu Yunes was 16 when her father stabbed her 17 times before cutting her throat, because he could not accept that she had a boyfriend. On sentencing Abdallah Yunes for his daughter’s murder, Judge Neil Denison said “we will consider his culture for the tariff” and sentenced him to just 14 years in prison. Yunes was considered a hero by members of his community, who provided thousands of pounds worth of bail money and hatched a fake kidnapping plot to take him back to Iraq where he could evade prosecution.
IKWRO has campaigned for years to challenge such cultural relativism in relation to women’s rights, but there is still some distance to go. It is bound up with British people’s fears of being branded racist, and with ethnic minorities’ fears that racism against them will increase if light is shed on abuses of women’s rights within their communities, but both these perspectives are racist towards women from minority communities and put respect for cultural practices before their human rights. How many more women must suffer forced marriage, domestic violence and even murder for society to understand that forced marriage and honour killings are crimes, plain and simple? It is culture which has to be changed rather than women sacrificed. Multiculturalism does not mean that we should tolerate the unacceptable.
We have also campaigned since 2006 for forced marriage to be made a criminal offence. It has been a long journey, but we would campaign until this is done in every country in the world. The Universal Declaration on Human Rights was hard fought for more than sixty years ago, but even today women and girls are denied their rights to live their own lives and to make basic choices such as whether, when and whom to marry. We all have a duty to defend these rights. There can be no justification for forced marriage.