New law saves 86 victims from forced marriages

But experts warn that the impetus behind the new legislation and police training on 'honour' killings is in danger of slowing
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The Independent Online

The girl was 12 when she was "married" to her 16-year-old cousin. Her "husband" then raped her, with the approval of her father, his brother and sister-in-law. It sounds like a horror story from the past in some remote part of the developing world. It happened last year, in London.

Last week in north London, a court convicted the now 17-year-old boy of rape and the Albanian girl's father, uncle and aunt of causing or inciting underage sexual activity. The court heard that the schoolgirl's father, aged 29, had staged the illegal marriage ceremony in front of his older brother, 54, and sister-in-law, 54. Police were called in after the girl's mother found out what her husband and his family had done to her child.

The case is perhaps the most horrific in the 12 months since the Forced Marriage and Civil Protection Act came into force. Judges have issued 86 forced marriage protection orders in the past year to prevent illegal marriages such as the one suffered by the girl, and helped annul marriages when the ceremony had already taken place.

Earlier this year a teenager with learning disabilities was placed on an indefinite protection order after she revealed to teachers at her special school that her parents had forced her to marry a cousin in Pakistan. Police and social services worked with the girl, who had limited capacity to make decisions, and the visa application of her "husband" was blocked.

She wanted to stay with her parents, so the order required the seizure of her passport. It prohibits anyone in her family from harassing or threatening her – a breach could lead to two years in prison. While experts believe progress has been made over the past year or so, hundreds, if not thousands, of forced marriages will have taken place without the courts' knowledge.

Forced marriage and rape are symptoms of honour-based violence (HBV). Murder in the name of "honour" is the ultimate violent crime perpetuated by relatives or members of a community in order to protect or revenge "dishonourable" behaviour. Home Office figures suggest there are around 12 honour killings in the UK every year; thousands of women are killed for the same reason across the world.

The risks involved in HBV are complex so it is essential the authorities are able to look beyond the smokescreens families will put up, according to Shahien Taj, from the women's charity, the Henna Foundation. Getting things wrong, especially at the point when a victim first comes forward, can have tragic consequences.

The murder of Geeta Aulakh, 28, a mother of two, in London last week, will be investigated by police as a potential honour killing after it emerged that her right hand – which bore the kara bracelet worn by Sikhs to remind them to strive for an "honourable" life – was hacked off by a "bladed object".

Ms Taj, fearing "honour" reprisals against the 12-year-old Albanian girl and her mother, has urged police and social services to urgently complete a HBV risk assessment to protect them from their extended family or community. Her convicted relatives have been bailed until sentencing next month.

HBV, forced marriage and female genital mutilation will all be highlighted in the police national intelligence database to be rolled out next year. And the National Policing Improvement Authority is working closely with Nikki Hubbard – the police officer who has spearheaded many of the improvements in this area – to develop a mandatory training package. But experts fear that the imminent departure to new posts of Ms Hubbard and the equally committed Commander Steve Allen could see progress stutter as many forces still rely heavily on their advice when dealing with individual cases.

Anne-Marie Hutchinson, a partner at the law firm Dawson Cornwell, said: "The police and social services have become more aware and alert, and we've had some great successes over the first year, but there are still times when they don't understand who the girl could be at risk from."

Additional reporting by Victoria Richards