I was absolutely delighted to read in the Guardian the other day that the Home Affairs Select Committee has conducted a report into the issue of forced marriages in the UK and, as a result, has called for forced marriage to be made a criminal offence.
Such legislation, if passed, would be long overdue. As a liberal, democratic nation Britain is responsible for ensuring that all of its citizens and those who abide within its borders are guaranteed protection of their human rights. It is important to recognise that fundamentally that’s what forced marriages are; a violation of human rights and, in many cases, institutionalized, condoned rape.
I believe that the vast majority of people are unaware of the true extent of this problem in the UK. The report by the committee details that the Government’s Forced Marriage Unit handles around 300 cases every year but believes this to be only the “tip of the iceberg” with previous research suggesting that the national prevalence of forced marriage rates was between 5,000 and 8,000 per year.
Many people within politics have shied away from addressing this area as they believe that doing so would alienate members of certain communities or be perceived as ‘culturally intolerant’. This idea is simply wrong-headed. A law which criminalised forced marriage in which there was either physical or emotional coercion involved, would not be criminalising arranged marriages. There are, of course, many young couples within the UK, often from specific communities, who get married to a spouse chosen by their parents, or to a person they met through a sort of parentally-guided dating service and, while this may not be common within prevailing British culture nor be my own personal choice, where there is consent it is not for me or anyone to judge how each individual decides to find their partner.
Those lines of clarity having been drawn, which they have been in the report, it is imperative that the British political establishment recognises forced marriage for what it really is and takes the steps it is duty bound to do as a democratic nation. I would like to take this opportunity to praise my Labour colleagues on the committee for compiling such an excellent report and for fighting for justice for women abused by their families.
Whilst there are currently civil measures in place aimed at preventing forced marriages, those involved in the issues argue that these are insufficient to stem the practice. For instance, although it is now possible for courts to issue forced marriage protection orders, there has, according to Karma Nirvana, been no real penalties issued for breaches of these orders often allowing such marriages to occur despite police knowledge of the problems.
The report praised the work of the organisations who work to combat the practice of forced marriage and offer support and advice to victims, such as Karma Nirvana, which runs the Honour Network Helpline and Southall Black Sisters. The work of these organisations was found by the report to be absolutely crucial to the victims of forced marriage and to the cause of abolishing the practice. Unsurprisingly, both of these organisations face closure as a result of the threat of spending cuts. Once again, this government is showing its contempt for those of its citizens most vulnerable to harm and in the most appalling circumstances.