Forced marriage bill hopes to protect victims in the UK

Astrid Zweynert – WNN Justice

UK Forced Marriage Unit woman interviewee
A woman interviewee who has been involved with the UK Forced Marriage Unit assistance program tells her story of forced marriage and family pressure. When she was 17 years of age she was forced to marry her mother’s nephew against her will during what she thought was a family holiday in Pakistan. Image: UK Foreign Office

(WNN/TLW) London, UNITED KINGDOM: Making forced marriage a crime sends an unequivocal message that it is not just immoral but against the law, one of Britain’s pioneers in tackling honour-based violence and forced marriage says. Nazir Afzal, chief crown prosecutor for Britain’s North West Area, has been a leading force behind legislation proposed this June by the government to make forced marriage a criminal offence in England and Wales.

Afzal spoke to TrustLaw about what is needed to make the new law work, why misconceptions about forced marriage are deep-rooted and how teachers, police officers, prosecutors and others in the community must learn how to identify it and fight it.

The government estimates that there are at least 8,000 forced marriages or threats of forced marriages per year in Britain. It is most common among Pakistani, Bangladeshi and Indian communities. It also is practiced by Middle Eastern, North African and Eastern European groups as well as among some Christians.

Prosecutors can already issue forced marriage protection orders, aimed at preventing such marriages and at protecting victims. Violating such an order can result in up to two years of imprisonment.

Q: How will turning forced marriage into a criminal offence make a difference?

A:  It has to be a criminal offence, which will recognise that it’s not just immoral but that it is criminal to do this.

Also, it will probably help some victims…They will be able to say ‘What you’re doing is against my religion, it’s against moral codes, but it is also against the law’ – and that might…persuade some parents, some families to desist, to prevent it from happening in the first place. ….. Certainly the view of many is that it’s not about pushing this further underground because this issue is so underground already. It’s about giving people more rights than they currently have.

How real are concerns that criminalisation could force forced marriage even further underground?

I understand that fear because there will be a lot of people who simply want to be safe, go somewhere where they are not going to be harmed by their families. They don’t necessarily ever want to see their families ever again. My point is that whilst she may be safe, there may be other women in the family — mothers, other sisters, cousins — who suffer similar threats or violence and so it’s not just about that individual and their experience, it’s about the other potential victims and their experience. We have a duty to all of them…

What else could be done to stop forced marriage?

Parents, who force their children to marry, often justify their behaviour as protecting their children or building stronger families and preserving cultural and religious traditions. They don’t see actually anything wrong in their actions.  All of us, not just the statutory sector, every Briton, every member of every population in any country, need to challenge such justifications…

I use this analogy: a forced marriage is not some exotic phenomenon. A forced marriage is like an earthquake because it is followed by a tsunami of domestic abuse, child protection issues, rape, suicide, homicide – very serious things happen after the forced marriage. People need to get that message out that it is not about protecting your children.

But what about the view that it is a faith-based practice?

There is no religion on earth that supports this. (In Islam) it says if you’re forcibly marrying someone, it’s not a marriage, it doesn’t count as a marriage. What you’re doing is encouraging adultery, which is a very sinful activity, as far as Islam is concerned.

You need champions in the community. Very few men speak out on this subject….and yet they need to do this. They need to say ‘This is wrong’, ‘Not in my name’ and actually fight for the rights of women and children. …Why should women of the family carry all the honour of the family on their shoulders?

I think we need to challenge that narrative, we need champions to do it, we need faith leaders to speak out – it’s not a faith issue …but people will listen to faith leaders, so they  need to speak out on this subject.

And we need to work with children, educate them (about) what their rights are, educate them about what is a good relationship, need to educate them what men can do, what women can do, so that they don’t feel there is a different role for women in society. We’ve got to literally work from the bottom up. We have to start with the very youngest to ensure that when they grow up they see that this is wrong, rather than something that is the way that things should be done.

Q: Why are schools not doing more to educate children about forced marriage?

A: I don’t think it comes down to political correctness, I don’t buy that argument. To be honest, I think it’s about not asking the right questions. If a child goes missing, who normally reports it going missing?  The family. So, if the family is responsible for the child going missing, they’re not going to report it. There’s a duty on educationalists, doctors, health professionals, neighbours, community members to say ‘Where is that young woman?’

I have spoken to hundreds of head teachers and schoolteachers over the last few years and they have a greater understanding now than there ever was. But there are some schools that because of their governors are reluctant to take part in campaigns because they do not want to be perceived to be attacking any one group in society. However, I think that is misguided on their part because when I talk to leaders of all communities they’re actually very keen to talk about this subject and to tackle it. Regrettably, too many people think ‘She is no longer on our school roll anymore, not our problem.’ But my point is – it should be everybody’s problem.

The police’s response has come under fire for not universally providing the same service to every forced marriage victim. What can be done to improve this?

There were many occasions where there was a bit of a postcode lottery. Depending on where you were, how understanding the police officer was, how understanding the prosecutor was, you got a different response. What we have learned is that that can’t happen because it is absolutely essential that there is consistency across the country.

A lot of victims may well live in London or Manchester but when they flee their families to seek assistance they may go to a part of the country that maybe doesn’t have that level of understanding and knowledge. So, it’s absolutely essential that there are people in whichever county, whatever part of the country, that can signpost them to support, who can understand what their experience is and who will be able to tackle it in very quick order because one of the things we’ve learned about this issue over the past few years is that it can escalate very quickly into serious violence if it is not dealt with quickly. We need to ensure that whatever the first contact is, that contact is meaningful.

Forced marriage mostly affects females. Are there concerns about males as well?

The government’s own figures suggest that something like 15 percent that seek assistance from the government’s Forced Marriage Unit are male. Yes, there is a significant problem. Men are probably very unlikely to disclose because there is this masculinity thing …’I’m a man, I will take it on the chin’…We may well be underestimating the number of male victims. But we have to recognise that the vast majority are female victims and there are many, many thousands of female victims that never come to the attention of the statutory sector, and so we need to really focus on them, concentrate on them, but not to the exclusion of male victims.

This is about ensuring that men who try to control women’s behaviour are brought to book, literally, and that women feel safe wherever they may be.

(Editing by Lisa Anderson)


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