Today the Government announced plans to make forcing someone to marry a criminal offence.  My organisation, the Iranian and Kurdish Women’s Rights Organisation, has worked with survivors of forced marriage since 2002 and we have been campaigning for a change in the law for the past six years.

Criminalisation is a vital weapon in the fight against forced marriage.  Under the current system, although a girl who is at risk of being or has already been forced into marriage can get a court order to protect her, families who push their daughters into marriage go unpunished.  By making forced marriage a crime, the Government is sending a clear message to these families that their actions will no longer be tolerated.  They will now be held accountable before the law and they could end up in prison.

So they should.  Forced marriage deprives victims of the ability to make basic choices such as when, whether and who to marry, and is a serious violation of human rights.  In our work at IKWRO we see the consequences of forced marriage every day.  It ruins women’s and girls’ lives.

Forced marriage can also lead to physical violence, imprisonment, rape and even ‘honour’ killing.  Women and girls from the communities that we work with have suffered these violations for too long.  Now at last the law is on their side, telling them unequivocally that what is happening to them is wrong, illegal and can be stopped.

Some commentators have expressed concerns that the new law could deter victims of forced marriage from coming forward.  In fact, many of the women and girls that IKWRO has worked with support criminalisation and have told us that their parents would not have gone through with plans to force them into a marriage if they had faced the threat of criminal sanction.  Some believe that the criminal law would have enabled them to stand up to their parents and to say no.

Of course, we also know that there are women and girls who do not want their parents to be sent to jail, and these women and girls should know that they need have no fear of coming forward.  When the government was consulting on whether or not to criminalise forced marriage, IKWRO recommended that they should keep the existing system of civil protection in place, while also enabling victims who want to seek justice through the courts to do so.  This is what the Government has done and we want to assure victims that no one will be made to press charges against their parents if they do not want to.

As Marie Staunton’s blog pointed out earlier today, criminalisation is not the only thing that we can do to end forced marriage.  More work in schools to educate young people about consent in marriage is also vital, as are greater efforts to change attitudes within communities that are affected by forced marriage.  Many people within these communities are against the practice, and the new law will help them to speak out.

Better protection for victims is essential too.  Schools, the police and social services must get better at handling forced marriage cases, and staff in these bodies urgently need training to enable them to help victims of forced marriage.  The Government has announced a £500,000 fund to deliver these improvements and this is most welcome, but there is a need for leadership too.  If particular schools or local authorities are failing to meet their responsibilities, the government will need to step in.

Alongside statutory bodies, specialist organisations like IKWRO, Karma Nirvana and The Sharan Project play a vital role in supporting victims of forced marriage.  In the current financial climate, we need sustainable funding so that we can continue to help women and girls to stand up for their rights and to take control of their lives.  Many survivors of forced marriage are left feeling guilty for going against their parents’ wishes or for ‘dishonouring’ their families, and we want them to know that it’s their parents who are in the wrong, not them.  That is the message that this new law will send, loud and clear.

This post was published by The Independent on Saturday 9 June 2012.

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