Joan Smith's Notebook: Forced marriage: the shocking truth can be ignored no longer

The treatment of some women from ethnic minorities is a disgrace. Also: thoughts on New Look and sexism

Related Topics

Astonishingly, it is not a criminal offence in this country to force someone to get married. We know that families use threats, emotional blackmail and pressure from religious leaders, but they're not breaking the law unless they resort to violence. That seems set to change, with an announcement expected today that ministers intend to make forced marriage a crime.

The Government's Forced Marriage Unit dealt with 1,468 cases last year. Women's organisations report that "scores" of women and girls contact them every week, saying they fear they'll be beaten or killed if they resist. Karma Nirvana, the organisation set up to help victims by Jasvinder Sanghera after she ran away from a forced marriage, gets 5,000 calls a year to its helpline.

I don't think we should look away from what forced marriage involves. Most of the victims are women – 78 per cent, according to the Forced Marriage Unit – and it exposes them to repeated rape by men they haven't chosen and quite possibly despise. It's common for girls to be married to much older men or relatives, but what's beginning to emerge is a scandal about the targeting of the most vulnerable people in our society. Government statistics show that 56 of last year's cases involved victims with learning disabilities, while another 10 identified themselves as gay or lesbian.

The Labour government acknowledged that forced marriage was a problem but introduced "forced marriage orders" in the civil courts instead of criminalising it. Historically, there's been a reluctance to "stigmatise" the communities where the practice takes place, and a tendency to listen to "community leaders" who are usually male, conservative and elderly. As Labour found to its cost in the Bradford West by-election, such people aren't representative, and that's especially true on matters to do with gender.

There are now many organisations representing black and ethnic minority women, from the long-established Southall Black Sisters to Karma Nirvana and Imkaan. Imkaan recently produced a shocking report on the extent of "harmful practices" – forced marriage, "honour-based" violence and female genital mutilation – in London. Its director, Marai Larasi, suggested that these weren't being properly addressed because of fears of being labelled "culturally insensitive".

Not all women's organisations agree that forced marriage should be criminalised, but Sanghera has campaigned to toughen the law. A government consultation has already suggested that breaching a forced marriage order should become a criminal offence, but David Cameron is expected to go further and announce a specific crime of forcing someone to marry.

I hope he does, but I'd also like to see a shift in thinking. "Harmful practices" affect women in ethnic minority communities, but the underlying issue is control. Politicians should condemn forced marriage as unequivocally as any other form of domestic abuse, which is what it really is.

No lion rampant, but rampant sexism

I gather some sort of international football event starts today, and fans are worried that the players may face racist chants on the terraces. So I have to congratulate the high-street retailer New Look for reminding us all about the other problem in sport, which is rampant sexism.

For only £12.99, you can be the proud owner of a "fantasy football" T-shirt which shows a woman with a football between her splayed legs. She's blowing a whistle and wearing a black-and-white striped shirt, though I've never seen a real-life referee with quite that much cleavage.

I wonder why New Look thinks this kind of thing is amusing. Professional football is a male domain in this country, but lots of girls and women play the game as well. They might think twice in future about buying clothes from a company which appears to believe a woman's role on the pitch is as the butt of sniggering sexist jokes.;

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Cover Supervisor

£75 - £90 per day + negotiable: Randstad Education Group: Are you a cover supe...

Marketing Manager - Leicestershire - £35,000

£30000 - £35000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager (CIM, B2B, MS Offi...

Marketing Executive (B2B and B2C) - Rugby, Warwickshire

£22000 - £25000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A highly successful organisation wit...

SEN Coordinator + Teacher (SENCO)

£1 per day: Randstad Education Leeds: Job Purpose To work closely with the he...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Piper Ryan Randall leads a pro-Scottish independence rally in the suburbs of Edinburgh  

i Editor's Letter: Britain survives, but change is afoot

Oliver Duff Oliver Duff
Some believe that David Cameron is to blame for allowing Alex Salmond a referendum  

Scottish referendum: So how about the English now being given a chance to split from England?

Mark Steel
Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

Scrambled eggs and LSD

Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

New leading ladies of dance fight back

How female vocalists are now writing their own hits
Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

A shot in the dark

Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
His life, the universe and everything

His life, the universe and everything

New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
Save us from small screen superheroes

Save us from small screen superheroes

Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
Reach for the skies

Reach for the skies

From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

12 best hotel spas in the UK

Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
How to make a Lego masterpiece

How to make a Lego masterpiece

Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam