Combating forced marriages requires more than robust legal measures
The legislation on tackling forced marriage provides civil remedies for a breach of a forced marriage protection order (FMPOs).
In the first three years after the legislation came into force, 339 FMPOs were recorded, although the true extent of the abuse is likely to be on a far greater scale. The government’s Forced Marriage Unit dealt with 1,735 forced marriage cases in 2010 – and many more cases go unreported.
Following a Home Affairs Select Committee recommendation to criminalise forced marriage and breaches of FMPOs, the government has consulted on:
1) how criminalisation of breaches of FMPOs should be implemented; and 2) whether a specific criminal offence of forced marriage would help combat the practice.
The consultation suggests that these approaches could be modelled on breaches of non-molestation orders set out in the Family Law Act 1996 and on Scottish forced marriage legislation.
In its response to the consultation, the Law Society has come out strongly in favour of making both forced marriage and the breach of FMPOs criminal offences. This would acknowledge the level of wrongdoing against vulnerable victims by their own families, send out a stronger signal to potential offenders, and provide victims with greater support and protection.
In a civil action, the onus is on the victim to bring the action. An argument against criminalisation has been that it will deter victims from reporting forced marriage because of the consequences for their family. The reality is that for a victim to report their family members to the authorities takes enormous courage because of the immense emotional pressures piled upon them. Any victim – usually but not invariably a young girl – who reports an attempt at a forced marriage or a breach of a FMPO is likely to face isolation and being stigmatised within their family, among their friends and in their wider community for taking action against those closest to them. Once they have taken the step of approaching the authorities, it is far better that the onus for initiating proceedings is then put on those authorities – the police and Crown Prosecution Service – than the victim.
Combating forced marriages will require more than a robust legal framework. All agencies, including the police, the CPS, schools and local authorities must not only be made aware of the new legal framework, but also be supported by training and education. Inevitably, this will require funding. School staff are particularly important and need to be supported accordingly. They need to be helped to spot the signs of a child who is at risk of, or who may recently have entered, a forced marriage, and know where to turn to for help.
Another difficult challenge will be to raise awareness among victims and potential victims of forced marriage of the help that is available to them. Often it is the ‘community’ that is given the information, possibly the very same people who do not want these children to be aware about the help available.
Forced marriage under the pretext of a holiday or visit to a sick relative often requires several members of a family or community to arrange, and for that reason the Law Society supports the proposal that breaching any element of a FMPO should be a criminal offence, so that all parties are liable for their role in making the arrangements.
Some communities do not accept that forced marriage is not legitimised by either culture or tradition. The reality is that this is a form of bullying, violence and abuse. Forced marriage is quite unlike an arranged marriage which is traditional, cultural and – crucially – consensual for both parties who are introduced to one another and who then have the choice of whether to marry or not. Criminalisation of forced marriages would make that distinction clearer.
Talvinder Penaser is a director and specialist family law solicitor at Leeds Family Law, and a member of the Law Society family law committee