Leading women’s rights charity welcomes new law making forced marriage a criminal offence

Diana Nammi, Executive Director of the Iranian and Kurdish Women’s Rights Organisation is available for interview.

On Monday, 16 June 2014, forced marriage becomes a self-standing criminal offence in England and Wales and in Scotland punishable by up to 7 years in prison. At the same time, in England and Wales it also becomes a criminal offence to breach a Forced Marriage Protection Order, in line with Scotland where this is already the case.

The Iranian and Kurdish Women’s Rights Organisation (IKWRO), which represents women and girls from Middle Eastern, North African and Afghan communities, has been at the forefront of the campaign to criminalise Forced Marriage across the UK over the last decade, is celebrating this crucial step forward in the movement to end forced marriage.

Diana Nammi, founder and Executive Director of IKWRO says;

“We have campaigned long and hard for the criminalisation of forced marriage, which equates to slavery, for a number of years because this is what the women that we represent tell us they want. Criminalisation makes it absolutely clear to everyone that forced marriage is not tolerated in the UK. The absence of a specific criminal offence thus far has undermined the movement to end forced marriage. Criminalisation is a crucial deterrent; many of our clients have told us that if forced marriage had been criminalised when they were facing it, their families may not have gone ahead with it because they would have abided by the law.

The women and girls that we work with say that they want to know that the law is clearly on their side and that forced marriage is explicitly illegal. Those who have experienced forced marriage tell us that if they had been confident that the law was on their side when they were facing forced marriage, they would have felt empowered to seek help.

Some say that criminalisation will force the issue underground. But it is already a hidden issue and we must continue to work hard to change this. IKWRO are doing this, by working in schools and colleges. We are training all staff through inset says, influencing students who may be potential victims, perpetrators or have influence to prevent forced marriage of others, and we are reaching parents through school coffee mornings. But to ensure that everyone can be reached we need the government to get on board by making whole school education on this issue compulsory. We must see commitment from the Department of Education to ensure that the statutory guidelines on forced marriage and ‘honour’ based violence are embedded into safeguarding strategies, structures and procedures for all schools and colleges and for effective ongoing monitoring by Ofsted.

Our colleagues in Denmark at a charity called LOKK, tell us that since 2008 when forced marriage became a criminal offence there, the numbers of young people and professionals seeking help around the issue of forced marriage have soared. The same is already happening here in the UK; since the intention to criminalise forced marriage was announced by David Cameron on 8th June 2012, reporting has almost doubled. The same arguments were raised against criminalising marital rape but far from going underground, reporting has increased four-fold’.

With the new specific offence the law will be much clearer. It will be easier to for those at risk and also for people who have influence to prevent a forced marriage to tell perpetrators about. Criminalisation will also make it crystal clear to front-line professionals, such as teachers and social workers, that forced marriage is a serious safeguarding issue and that they must take action to ensure anyone at risk is safe. So now those at risk will be able have confidence that they will be taken seriously.

Some people have said that criminalising forced marriage will intensify negativity towards minority communities. IKWRO has repeatedly heard this argument made about all of our work raising awareness on all forms of ‘honour’ based violence. We have been told to be quiet about all negative issues within our communities. But we strongly disagree. We both represent and are largely made up of minority women and we must at the same time expose human rights abuses and fight racism; the two are not mutually exclusive. We believe that staying silent about human rights abuses faced by women and girls from minority communities is racist. By turning our back and allowing harmful practices such as forced marriage to continue unchallenged, we actually leave the community to face stigmatisation and discrimination. We must prioritise the safety of minority women and girls, we must protect their universal human rights and fight for equality.

Not only does criminalisation send a clear message within the UK, it also sends a clear message internationally, which is important because forced marriage is a global human rights issue.

Changing the law is a crucial step in the movement, but this alone will not end forced marriage. I call upon the government to implement a national strategy plan to address forced marriage. The plan must ensure:

a) Effective training for all professionals working with the public, including the police, judges, health professionals and social services.

b) Whole school education for students and all staff.

c) Monitoring of prolonged absences by students and students not returning from holidays.

d) That affected communities, including both potential perpetrators and potential victims are made aware of the changes in the law.

e) A victim/survivor focussed approach to ensure they are fully protected and supported.

f) Access to public funds for victims/ survivors.

g) Provision within immigration law and procedures to permanently protect victims/survivors.

h) Access to justice through legal aid for victims/survivors.

i) Sustainable funding for specialist support organisations like IKWRO and for refuges.

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