Perpetrators of forced marriages will now be required to bear the financial cost associated with the victims return
At the beginning of January, an investigation by The Times revealed that young British women who are forced into marriages abroad are often charged for their return to the UK when assisted by the Forced Marriage Unit. These women, predominately South Asian in origin, are usually made to pay for their flights back to the UK as well as basic food and shelter, which can add up to hundreds of pounds in total. For women who are unable to pay, the Foreign Office makes them take out an emergency loan that has to be paid back within six months, or else is increased by 10%. The passports of these women are withheld from them until they have paid their debts.
For women, already under immense stress in the face of a traumatic event like a forced marriage, these strict requirements to ensure their basic freedom (and often, safety) appear unjust. Many MPs have condemned the loans as ‘astonishing’ and ‘immoral.’
However, following careful consideration of the matter, the Foreign Office announced on the 9th of January that it would reverse this policy. Foreign Secretary, Jeremy Hunt, said that the Foreign Office would regard these women as “exceptionally vulnerable people” and impose Forced Marriage Protection Orders on the families who were responsible for arranging the forced marriage instead. This puts the financial burden of the rescue on the perpetrators of the act rather than the victims.
This is a promising step in the right direction. The United Kingdom criminalised forced marriage in 2014 to hold families accountable for their actions. A successful conviction could result in a jail term of up to seven years. While this was an important turning point, it is clear that forced marriage convictions are not a common occurrence. In 2018, only two such convictions took place. While the Home Office publishes a Forced Marriage Unit Statistics Report each year that details the number of women and men supported by the unit, the report fails to mention statistics regarding forced marriage convictions. Perhaps one reason for the lack of formal convictions is that victims often have trouble taking their parents to court as they do not wish to see them jailed. The Foreign Office’s new policy, then, in putting financial obligation on the families for the rescue of their children, creates another way for the government to hold these families accountable and makes it clear that forced marriages will not be tolerated.
It is important to dispel the common misconception that forced marriages are a cultural phenomenon particular to certain communities, and thus do not require the intervention of the government. Forced marriages are different from arranged marriages as they are finalised without the consent of one or both parties. Forced marriages are often imposed using threats, such as physical threats of violence as well as emotional blackmail. No particular faith sanctions forced marriages in any way either – freely-given consent is an important prerequisite of Muslim, Christian, Jewish, Hindu and Sikh marriages. Forced marriages are a real threat to the freedom and rights of women and there is no cultural or religious justification for them.
Between 2016 and 2017, the UK government’s Forced Marriage Unit rescued 82 women and it has been promising to see the government continue such important work in a more compassionate and just manner for the well-being of these young British women. In addition to holding perpetrators accountable, this new policy strengthens the culture of supporting victims, a culture that charities like JAN Trust have been working hard to foster at the grassroots level. It is our hope that providing victims of forced marriages with proper support will enable more to feel safe to speak up about their problems and get help on time.
If you are facing a forced marriage or know of anyone who is, do not hesitate to contact the Forced Marriage Unit:
Telephone: 020 7008 0151 (Monday to Friday, 9am-5pm)
From overseas: +44 (0) 20 7008 0151
Out of hours: 020 7008 1500 (ask for the Global Response Centre)
To learn more about JAN Trust’s work to support women and BAMER communities in the UK, visit www.jantrust.org