Forced Marriage: Myths and Realities
Myth: There is no existing civil or criminal legislation in place to support victims, or potential victims, of forced marriage.
Reality: There is a strong misperception that there are no legal frameworks in place for addressing forced marriage. The current existing frameworks, combining criminal and civil legislation and the Forced Marriage Statutory Guidelines, provide adequate mechanisms to address forced marriage. It is also important to note that there is no specific crime of domestic violence, however there is a legislative framework which allows for the prosecution of a range of offences. Similarly, the framework exists for prosecuting a range of offences associated with forced marriage including rape, kidnap, false imprisonment, grievous bodily harm, common assault and murder.
Myth: Statutory professionals are confident to respond to forced marriage (but need criminalisation to do their work effectively).
Reality: Statutory professionals have an over-reliance on girls to come forward for help. Schools and other educational institutions have a key role to play. Teachers should be equipped to identify and respond appropriately to girls at risk, yet they are not consistently trained to identify risk and respond appropriately. Despite well-established child protection policy in the UK, professionals often lack the confidence, skills and knowledge to utilise existing systems. If forced marriage was better addressed within existing child protection policy and practice, (similar to other forms of child abuse and neglect) rates of disclosure would improve and agencies would be in a better position to intervene much earlier to prevent forced marriage.
Myth: We are required to criminalise forced marriage in order to fulfil our obligations under CAHVIO.
Reality: The UK does have an obligation to create specific legislation to address forced marriage under the Council of Europe Convention on preventing and combating violence against women and domestic violence (CAVHIO). It is imperative that there are punitive measures for perpetrator(s) in cases where a Forced Marriage Protection Order (FMPO) has been breached. If breach of an FMPO was a criminal offence with an automatic power of arrest this would strengthen the enforcement of the orders and would help to address current inadequacies in the way that FMPOs are monitored and enforced. This would also enable the UK to fulfil its obligations under the convention.
Myth: Criminalising forced marriage will stop forced marriage from happening.
Reality: It is likely that a specific criminal offence will have limited and potential detrimental impact on women and girls. There are concerns that this would lead to lower levels of reporting. We know from the experience of FGM legislation that legislation on its own has not managed to stop girls from being mutilated. Legislation in the UK does not operate in the same way as it does in other EU countries. It is designed with the specific aim to prosecute, not as a tool for changing attitudes or developing more responsive policies. The £15 million the government is looking to spend over the next ten years in the creation and implementation of a separate offence, could instead be used to ensure that every teacher, social worker, youth worker and other professional likely to come into contact with girls is trained on forced marriage; able to identify risk and direct to appropriate support. This money could also be invested in the specialist services that women are most likely to approach and trust to disclose in the first place.
Myth: Women and girls would proactively take criminal action against their parents.
Reality: Children and young women will often prioritise safety and empowerment over prosecution. There is a distinction between an adult taking criminal action against an intimate partner compared to a child taking significant family members to court that may lead to a prison sentence. Relationship breakdown with significant family members can be much more isolating, permanent and has a much more damaging and longer-term impact on young women. This especially is the case as victims are often under 18. Taking parents to court is understandably complex, emotionally fraught and difficult. Women often want to leave, want the choice to say no to a forced marriage and to access safety rather than criminalise their parents. Again, it is worth noting that to date there have been no successful prosecutions under the FGM legislation.
Myth: Women and girls can easily identify if they have been forced into a marriage.
Reality: Because of the very nature of the violence, BMER women are more likely to define their experience within the context of a family or community expectation rather than a form of abuse. For younger girls, patterns of disclosure are likely to be more complex and even chaotic. In many cases, young girls are unaware of what is happening to them as pressure to marry can occur over a number of years and can be very subtle. Young girls are also usually more dependent on their families and therefore more vulnerable to returning home without adequate support mechanisms in place. They also have fewer opportunities for accessing external support.
Myth: Forced marriage is an isolated incident that does not link to forms of gender-based violence such as domestic violence, rape or female genital mutilation.
Reality: Forced marriage is rarely an isolated incident. It is a process which is likely to happen over a long period of time and often occurs within the context of other forms of violence including domestic, sexual, ‘honour-based’ violence and female genital mutilation. Equally, because of the gendered nature of VAWG, there will be cases where less powerful family members usually, but not always, women and girls may appear complicit in the abuse, but may also be subject to coercion, or repercussions, if they do not support the family’s intentions and are not in a position to exercise choice.
Myth: There are adequate levels of support services available and funded for women and girls who have experienced forced marriage.
Reality: The Missing Link (2011) highlights a lack of age-appropriate services for girls subject to forced marriage. There are only two services specialising in providing forced marriage specific refuge-based accommodation and support services in London. Both have been subject to significant cuts in funding, and there is an absence of any form of specialist service in many areas of London. This pattern is consistent in other parts of the UK.
Myth: Forced marriage happens when a woman or girl is abducted and taken abroad to be married against her will.
Reality: Forced marriage is not an event, it is a process. Victims of forced marriage are likely to experience coercion, threats and violence from multiple perpetrators, and multiple interested parties, including parents, siblings and wider community networks. Part of the reason victims sometimes do not identify that they are being (or have been) forced into marriage is exactly that. It is very difficult to criminalise ‘you are such a good daughter and your mother is not well, it would make her happy if you got married’. Instead, you can support that young woman, you can increase her understanding around coercion, and you can provide safety interventions.
Myth: Forced marriage exclusively affects Pakistani / Muslim / South Asian communities.
Reality: Forced marriage affects a wide range of communities, including Irish Traveller, Afghan, South Asian, Kurdish, Iraqi Kurd, Arab and some African communities. In a UK context, the needs and experiences of some affected groups are less visible within existing policy and service frameworks, which in turn contributes to hierarchies of need and responses. It is vital that individuals and groups that are extremely marginalised, and who have limited voice, are supported to engage around this issue. Too often the spotlight is on individuals or organisations with higher profiles, who then become perceived as single spokespeople on specific issues.
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