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Victims must not be deterred from coming forward

Victims must not be deterred from coming forward

The Government has recently announced that forcing someone into a marriage will be made a specific criminal offence in England and Wales. The idea of this new law is to prevent forced marriage from taking place.

A forced marriage is a marriage in which one or both spouses do not consent to the marriage and duress is involved. Duress can include physical, psychological, financial, sexual and emotional pressure. So 'choice' is the crucial factor in deciding whether a marriage is forced. An arranged mar- riage is when both parties consent to the marriage.

As co-director of The Sky Project, a charity that tackles forced marriage in the South West, I have been heavily involved in the government consultation process and discussions around criminalisation. On the face of it, criminalisation appears to be a good move by the Prime Minister in the hope that people who commit this offence will understand the severity of their actions and professionals, such as the police, will be able to act more effectively. It will send out a strong message that forced marriage will not be tolerated.

This surely can only be a good thing, right? On the contrary, many organisations feel that making forced marriage a criminal offence will only deter victims from coming forward and simply drive the matter further un- derground and this is a concern shared by The Sky Project.

The difficulty we have with forced marriage cases is that the perpetrators are generally the parents and family of the victim. Many victims live in close communities where family is everything and therefore, prosecuting their parents or extended family is likely to be very difficult for them.

Currently forced marriage victims are able to make a civil remedy called a Forced Marriage Protection Order.

The order is used to stop a forced marriage from occurring or to help someone who has already been forced into marriage. A power of arrest can also be attached to the order leading to potential imprisonment if the order is breached.

For victims, making a civil order is a huge step and only the starting process of their suffering. Many have to detach themselves from family and community that they have the strongest affections towards and come to terms with the fact that it is those closest to them that have caused them pain.

In fact, many victims still want to keep relationships with their family. Within civil proceedings alone, organ- isations have found it usual for victims to go hot and cold and instructions to be withdrawn. Those familiar with female genital mutilation (FGM), will know that it has been a criminal offence since 1985 but there has not been one single prosecution. Does that mean that the practice of female genital mutilation does not take place? Certainly not. FGM, like forced marriage cases, involve multiple perpetrators who are often family members. One has to ask the question why there are no FGM prosecutions and compare this with forced marriages. What seems to be the case is that however abhorrent the act, victims of FGM do not want to prosecute family members.

Criminal law already provides pun- ishment for offences that may be committed when forcing someone into marriage. "There is already plenty of criminal law to tackle murder, kidnapping, abduction, rape and all the other evil manifestations associated with forcing people into marriage against their will," said Lord Lester, who introduced the Forced Marriage Bill which led to the 2008 Act.

He stated that the family law approach was better than the criminal process which, he said, "has not proved to be an effective way of tackling a major social problem" and a major social problem it is.

Many people are hopeful that this sort of practice will die out after generations but I am not too sure. We are now finding cases where brothers, who are born in Britain, are becoming major perpetrators. The 'shame' and 'dishonour' of rejecting a forced marriage can pass through generations. In the most serious of cases, the feeling of this 'shame' can lead to what is now known as 'honour killings'. Shafilea Ahmed and Banaz Mahmod are just two of the notable cases. It is thought that there are an estimated 14 honour killings a year but this, in my view, is just the tip of the iceberg.

Passing a law alone does not go far enough in supporting victims of forced marriage. Work needs to be done to equip victims with the strength to come forward. The 'dishonour' of prosecuting ones family is often seen to be greater than the crime itself. It is also imperative that work is being done alongside the law to change the culture of acceptance of forced marriage. Work needs to be done at the grass roots level to challenge the foundations of this practice.

I sincerely hope that criminalisation will not deter victims from coming forward and their protection should be paramount. It has only been in the last few years that victims are finding the strength to seek help. Let's hope we don't assume that the change in the law is the solution to this problem.

 


This article was first published in the Bristol Post on August 17th 2012. Download the article here.

 

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The Sky Project is a registered small charity in England and Wales (ref: XT29524).