Toby Harris on getting the message across that forced marriage is wrong – and in Britain, illegal
Shaz is 15 years old. This is how she tells her story:
“When I was 12, I went on a family holiday to Bangladesh. As soon as I got out there were marriage proposals from my cousins. I started starving myself and was brought back. I couldn't tell anyone. My brother said I was going to marry my cousin from Bangladesh if I didn't he would kill me.”
Shaz’s brother was only two years older than her, and was born and brought up in this country.
Today forced marriage becomes a criminal offence. This is welcome and is the culmination of a long campaign by many organisations – including (declaration of interest) the Freedom Charity, whose Board I chair.
Forcing someone to marry against their will is abhorrent, and is also widely regarded as a violation of internationally recognised human rights standards. Indeed, Article 16.2 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights says: ‘Marriage shall be entered into only with the free and full consent of the intending spouses.’
Under the previous Labour government, the Forced Marriage (Civil Protection) Act was passed, enabling victims to apply for court orders for their protection. It became apparent however, that more was needed; which is why we were happy to support criminalisation being included in the Coalition’s Anti-social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Bill during the last parliamentary session. Labour Peers successfully strengthened the measure as far as the principle of consent for people with learning difficulties was concerned, recognising that for some a forced marriage may take place without violence or threats.
The big task remains education. We need to make sure that those at risk understand they have a choice. We need families and communities to understand that forcing someone into a marriage against their will is not just wrong. It is now illegal.
Shaz was lucky. She tells how in January of last year:
“I was at school when Aneeta from Freedom visited, we all leant about forced marriage. I knew then I could get help. Freedom got me out. Now I live with my Foster Mum and Dad.”
We are now approaching the long summer school holidays – a time when young girls often disappear on long family holidays and are forced into marriages overseas. It is even more important therefore to get the message across that forced marriage is wrong.
That is why I, along with Labour colleagues and many others around the country, are marking the criminalisation of forced marriage by being photographed on Monday holding a Twitter-friendly sign saying #FREEDOM2CHOOSE.
Lord Toby Harris of Haringey is a backbench Labour Peer and Chair of Trustees at theFreedom Charity. He tweets @LordTobySays
Published 15th June 2014