It is a matter of cold, hard fact that hundreds, if not thousands, of British girls and women are pushed into forced marriages every year – and that there has only ever been one prosecution for this offence. Each summer, children disappear from classrooms never to return to this country, sent away against their will to a foreign land and a life of misery. Betrayed by their own parents, other family members and friends, they are treated like property and have to submit to vile abuse.
“Forced marriage” is not an attractive term, but behind it lie crimes that are uglier still – rape, violence, abduction, exile, even murder. One in 10 of the victims is legally a child; all are young and vulnerable. In any other context, the fact that the perpetrators of these crimes have an overwhelming chance of evading prosecution – though not detection – would be regarded as a matter of deep national shame. It is beyond time that forced marriage was viewed in the same way.
In facing up to the realities of this crime wave, we have also to recognise that it is concentrated in specific ethnic groups – those whose family background is often in the Indian subcontinent, or in Somalia and Turkey, even though the victims themselves are very often British citizens. As with the Rotherham “grooming” case, we should not allow sensitivities about multiculturalism to override basic human rights and standards of common decency. Forced marriage is a barbaric, practice that damages lives and causes unspeakable suffering; no amount of “tradition” can excuse it.
Perhaps the most disturbing of the many worrying aspects of the investigation and series we launch today is the fact that the victims are in many cases well known to the authorities. They may have had special Forced Marriage Protection Orders made for them. They may have even been successfully repatriated from places such as Pakistan by the British authorities. The police, schools, social services, even the Foreign Office, will have been involved in these missions of mercy – yet only one prosecution has been made.
The scale of the abuse and the variety of the agencies guilty of such abject failure do have echoes of what was happening with historical child abuse. Why the failures? Could it be the same misplaced nervousness about race that prevented Rotherham and other cases from being uncovered earlier? Could it be the same complacency about the rights and protection of children that allowed the Jimmy Savile scandal and the VIP sex abusers to flourish for so long? Was it simply that it was a problem that the authorities felt was beyond their ability to deal with, or that, given the ethnic groups where it was prevalent, those groups were not thought worthy of the same help that might have been given if the victims were all white?
At different times, in different places, all of those explanations will have merit. More understandably, social services and schools will have had real concerns that intervention could simply make matters worse and create alienation between parents and children – though that alienation would surely have happened once the process of abduction was under way.
The problem, though, is far from insoluble. Fundamental is securing more prosecutions, and for that the Forced Marriage Unit needs the resources and powers to work with other agencies to see the guilty punished. More refuges for girls are needed; more training for the police; and more direction to social services to monitor still more closely those girls – and a minority of boys – thought to be at risk.Reuse content