Forcing someone to marry is a serious violation of human rights which deprives the victim of the ability to make fundamental decisions about their life.  It can also involve serious crimes, including rape, abduction, assault and imprisonment.  Yet forced marriage is not a crime under UK law.
Last May the Home Affairs Committee recommended that the government make forcing someone to marry a criminal offence.  The HAC argued that this “would send out a very clear and positive message to communities”. 
A government consultation on this is ongoing.  IKWRO recently held a meeting with 15 Iranian, Kurdish and Afghan women – several of them survivors of forced marriage – to gage their views. All of the women were strongly in favour of criminalising forced marriage. 

Empowering victims with knowledge about their rights
Many victims of forced marriage do not recognise that their parents are doing something wrong and it is often only later that they realise they were forced into marriage.  Sometimes the emotional pressure from families can be subtle, constantly reminding the daughter that she must protect the family’s ‘honour’.  It can also be more direct, where the parent threatens suicide or says that the family will be disgraced if the daughter does not get married.   Other victims are frightened about becoming homeless, or they may even be afraid for their lives.

The women who attended our focus group argued that criminalisation will empower victims with knowledge of their rights.  If forced marriage were a crime, some said, they would have known that what was happening to them was wrong and this would have encouraged them to look for help earlier.
“Women would be aware of their rights and they would feel stronger and more able to stand up to forced marriage,” one woman argued. 
This experience has been reflected in Denmark, where forced marriage has been a crime since 2008. 
“It has in no way been our experience that young people have stopped seeking help because of this law” Danish organisation LOKK told IKWRO.  “On the contrary, the number of young people and professionals seeking help from LOKK has soared since 2008.”
Participants also emphasised that schools need to teach young people about forced marriage, and called for information on women’s rights to be provided to women who enter the UK from other countries. 

Deterring perpetrators and making forced marriage unacceptable
The group also believed that criminalisation would help to prevent forced marriage by sending a stronger message to families that it will not be tolerated.
“Even to get a driving license in this country is difficult,” one woman said.  “If you drive the wrong way that’s a crime, but if you force someone into marriage it’s not.  The law should be changed to show how serious forced marriage is.  There should be a strong law to protect women.”
Participants argued that criminalisation “would make a major difference” because “families would be scared” and “would not put themselves at risk of prison or of being called criminals”.  Participants also felt that criminalising forced marriage would ensure that families who use emotional pressure can be held responsible in law.  While some victims of forced marriage prosecute their families for associated offences such as assault, imprisonment or threats to kill, those who have been emotionally blackmailed or tricked into marriage have no such option. 

Ensuring victims and witnesses are protected
The women emphasised that victims and witnesses would need support in order to report forced marriage and to go through with prosecution.  A recent review of the Statutory Guidance on Forced Marriage showed that many professionals do not know their duties to victims of forced marriage and found that “schools, further education colleges, health services, local authorities and local authority housing departments will need to do more”. 
The government must implement the Statutory Guidance so that victims of forced marriage get support from the moment they come forward and through the criminal justice system. 

Concerns
Some organisations are concerned that criminalisation will affect the level of protection available to victims or will discourage those who do not want to criminalise their families from coming forward.  Group members suggested that the law should explicitly provide that no one should be forced into a prosecution against their wishes, and that the civil protection provided by Forced Marriage Protection Orders should continue to be available to victims, alongside any criminal charges.  The government should also ensure that legal aid continues to be available to victims who need an FMPO, even if they are already considered to be protected because bail conditions have been imposed on their family members.

Opponents have argued that there have been no prosecutions under the Female Genital Mutilation Act 2003.  This is largely due to the fact that FGM is carried out on small children who may be frightened about being put into care and are often unable to give a consistent account of what has happened.  In cases of forced marriage, the victim is older, more able to articulate what has happened and more able to envisage separating from her family.  Moreover, recent research on FGM suggests that the practice, particularly the more severe forms, is becoming less acceptable in the UK.  Criminalisation has undoubtedly played some role in this shifting of attitudes. 

Have you say
The consultation will run until 30 March.  We urge all organisations working with survivors of forced marriage to consider the points we have raised and to feed into the consultation..
Details can be found at
https://www.homeoffice.gov.uk/publications/about-us/consultations/forced-marriage/

 

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