New forced marriage legislation is not the answer

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Forcing someone to marry is now illegal in England and Wales leaving perpetrators who coerce victims into marriage facing up to 7 years in prison.  Although David Cameron argues that ‘forced marriage is abhorrent and little more than slavery… to force anyone into marriage against their will is simply wrong and that is why we have taken decisive action to make it illegal,’ it has become one of the most highly contested pieces of legislation to pass through Parliament in recent years. 

Here at JAN Trust, we continue to oppose the new legislation and have strong cause to believe that the law will place victims in greater danger and deter them from seeking help in situations which are already shrouded in secrecy and notoriously hard to reach. 

The new law will drive the issue further underground as victims tell us that they will not want to come forward if there is a possibility that their parents will be made into criminals and face imprisonment.  Although we may see perpetrators as criminals committing abhorrent human rights abuses, more often than not, victims do not see their parents in this way and purposefully avoid contact with statutory agencies.

Furthermore, in order for perpetrators to avoid penalties, there will be an increased risk of victims being taken abroad to marry at an earlier age or with no warning whatsoever.  This places young children at serious risk of harm and puts victims in a situation where they have no opportunity to seek help before it is too late. 

Although the government argues that criminalising forced marriage will clarify the law, work as a deterrent and ultimately decrease the number of forced marriages occurring overall, the main aim must surely be to support and protect as many victims as possible.  With no clear gap in the law and overwhelming evidence to suggest criminalisation will push the practice deeper underground, the legislation will, quite clearly, not be protecting those it was set up to serve.

Alternatively, we argue that there is an urgent need for the effective training of professionals in the multi-agency response strategy, increased awareness raising and education on the issues surrounding forced marriage in order to change mind sets and make it a mainstream concern, holistic support for victims who have left forced marriage situations and more funding within the sector in order to provide effective support structures for victims.

History repeating itself: Female Genital Mutilation legislation

Although FGM was criminalised in the UK nearly 30 years ago and despite over 140 referrals to the police in the last 4 years, the first prosecution in the UK was not made until April this year.  The effective implementation of FGM laws is hindered by problems in reporting and identifying cases and a lack of evidence to actually take cases to court.  This leaves vulnerable victims in a dangerous situation.  It is evident that many of the problems that have both affected and been caused by the FGM laws will plague the new forced marriage legislation:

1. Complaints from the victim. In the majority of cases, victims do not have a voice.  Isolated from society, under close surveillance from family members and the wider community, victims of physical, emotional and sexual abuse, they may not have an opportunity to speak out or, indeed, may be fearful of the consequences of doing so.  Victims are often confused, have conflicting loyalties and are scared of losing their family.

2. Testimony of victims. Victims are unlikely to give evidence against their parents or relatives for fear of losing their family or social group and facing repercussions from the community.

3. Witnesses. Typically witnesses are family members or members of the community who believe forcing someone into marriage is a means of upholding family honour.  Those relatives who might disapprove of the practice are deterred from testifying against perpetrators because of the threat of social ostracism and physical harm.

4. Front line professionals. Despite clear guidelines, many frontline professionals (GPs, teachers, social workers) are not trained in how to handle cases of forced marriage, do not have a full understanding of the law surrounding the issue and often misconstrue the practice as a cultural or religious matter with which they have no right to intervene.  They may be concerned about being culturally insensitive or accusations of racism.

5. Institutional culture. There has been a lack of knowledge on the issues surrounding forced marriage and how to respond effectively to ensure the safety of victims by police.

6. Identification. It cannot be assumed that both parents are guilty of coercing a victim into a marriage. Sometimes forced marriages are instigated by members of the wider family group or community.

7. The bigger picture.  As with the practice of FGM, these factors are interlocking and reinforce each other. There needs to be a proper understanding that law does not operate in isolation from community factors and civil remedies. Forced marriage is an agglomeration of taboo issues surrounding gender, race, honour, sexuality and violence.

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Support structures have increasingly been removed and reduced for women facing violence.  In many cases of forced marriage, families will hire bounty hunters to find victims after they flee.  Increasingly, bounty hunters have not been required as, due to a lack of support for victims leaving forced marriage situations, victims find they cannot cope on their own and return to their families to go through with the marriage.  Indeed, the Domestic Violence, Crime and Victims Act 2004 favours action against perpetrators, structures for criminalisation and surveillance over strategies for support.   It is arguable that too much attention is being focused on the criminal justice system in favour of civil remedies.  One million cases of domestic violence are reported to the police each year (Home Office, 2010) from which just 200, 000 result in arrest.  It is clear that the limitations of legal responses to domestic violence and indeed forced marriages need to be recognised and effective support structures implemented.

Furthermore, it is uncertain whether the law would act as a deterrent to potential perpetrators.  In 2011, Keir Starmer QC wrote an article quoting domestic violence statistics in the UK.  Although there are over 1 million instances of domestic violence each year, a woman will experience, on average, 35 instances of violence before reporting to the police.  Domestic violence is illegal but it is clear that no deterrent effect of the law is felt by these women.

At JAN Trust we carry out awareness-raising, preventative and direct support work on hate crime, domestic violence, honour based violence and female genital mutilation. Since the launch of our award-winning Against Forced Marriage campaign in 2011, as well as providing direct support to victims, we have been delivering extensive training to statutory and voluntary organisations designed to raise awareness, enable them to recognise potential victims and provide appropriate support. Our outreach work includes workshops with schools, youth groups as well as within the community. We are also the only charity in the UK to be working with perpetrators of forced marriages. 

Although our efforts are a massive step towards changing perceptions surrounding the issue, a lot more work needs to be done and more effective measures need to be taken by the government.

For more information on the work we carry out and why we are opposed to the new forced marriage legislation, please visit www.jantrust.org and www.againstforcedmarriages.org

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About JAN Trust

JAN Trust (www.jantrust.org) is a multi award winning not for profit organisation formed in the late 1980′s. We are based in London and cater for women and youth from disadvantaged and marginalised communities. Our work and services are delivered locally, nationally and internationally. Our aim is to create positive and active citizens of society by educating, empowering and encouraging women and youth. We are dedicated to the cause of combating poverty, discrimination, abuse and social exclusion among Black, Asian, minority ethnic, refugee and asylum seeking (BAMER) women. JAN Trust is making a real difference in improving the lives of communities; promoting human and women's rights as well as community cohesion. We provide a range of services and our work has been recognised by a variety of dignitaries. Check out our website for statements from some of our supporters: http://www.jantrust.org/what-people-say
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