Forcing the issue

Glenys ThorntonGlenys Thornton says that action is needed to challenge the terrible effects of forced marriage

Today I attended a lecture on forced marriage, organised by the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association. Every year, more than ten million girls and boys under the age of 18 marry, with many coerced into doing so. The issue discussed was how parliamentarians across the world can work together to challenge forced marriage and its terrible effects. The timing of this discussion could not be better given the UK government’s intention to introduce legislation.

Growing up and living in Bradford, the issue of forced marriage remains very real to me. 10% of forced marriages cases investigated by the Forced Marriage Unit (FMU) come from Yorkshire, and 56% overall across the world come from Pakistan. Around 70% of Pakistani forced marriages are from Mirpur, where a majority of Pakistanis in Bradford originate.

Experience tells me there needs to be a combination of stronger legal powers, and community action and dialogue. It takes guts to challenge your parents and cultural norms, and we must support those promoting a clear message that forced marriage is unacceptable. Community leaders in Bradford recently came together to meet the Khari Sharif Welfare Society support group, based in Mirpur, which helps those needing to escape forced marriage. The District Mufti of Mirpur, Hafiz Nazir Ahmed visited Manningham (supported by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office) and said:

“Islam does not allow forced marriage and it is a crime, not a marriage, and I convey this message to people through my lectures. [...] I have come to the UK to tell the people what is the right concept of Islam and marriage. There are three kinds of marriage. One of them is arranged marriage, the second is the love marriage and the third is forced marriage. If children refuse to take part in a marriage, they should not be pressured and the marriage should be stopped.”

The FMU defines forced marriage as when an individual is coerced into marrying someone against their will. They may also be threatened physically or emotionally blackmailed. It is not the same as an arranged marriage where someone has a choice whether to accept the arrangement or not.

The previous Labour government took the issue very seriously, establishing the FMU in 2005. Within 5 years, in 2010, the unit was dealing with 1,735 cases (including those of a number of men forced against their will). Even so, this underestimates the problem and the Home Affairs Select Committee has recently called for the law to be strengthened.

Protection orders introduced by Labour five years ago to combat forced marriage through the Family Courts have been widely used by those helping hundreds of victims. That work should continue but the law should also be strengthened include appropriate criminal sanctions to stop more forced marriages. At the same time, the Home Office needs to ensure the framework adopted is effective rather than counter productive. Ministers need to demonstrate they are working with victims groups and experts on the detail, so those forced or threatened into marriage have the confidence to come forward.

Moreover, any new legal framework will also need bolstering with proper support, prevention, education and enforcement. Cuts to refuges and threats to legal aid risk making it harder for potential victims to get the help they need, and we must also see more action in schools to help those who may yet be forced into marriage. To fail another generation vulnerable to this crime would be tragic.

Baroness Glenys Thornton is Labour’s Shadow Equalities Minister in the Lords

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