While MPs debate whether to raise the legal age of marriage to 18 in the UK to avoid 16- and 17-year-olds being forced into arranged marriages, we should not forget that it is already illegal to coerce anyone into a marriage against their will.
Nevertheless, the government’s Forced Marriage Unit (FMU) estimates that since 2012, between 1,200 and 1,400 forced marriages were recorded. But whether this new legislation will do anything to prevent forced marriages is questionable at best, because 80 per cent of them occur abroad.
Throughout my working life both as a community worker and local councillor I have dealt with victims of forced marriages from a wide variety of communities.
Typical first indicators are when a previously studious teenage girl suddenly drops out of school for several weeks, when neighbours say that they haven’t seen the girl in a while but that they heard “that her dad took her on a long holiday” – or when a local shopkeeper realises that girls who always stop to buy sweets or drinks on the way home are suddenly absent.
These are all reliable indicators that something is wrong. And too often that “something” is a forced marriage.
Communities of all faiths and persuasions need to step up and get involved to stop this happening.
Public services such as the social services, the police and the Home Office then need to work with those communities. The Southall Black Sisters group have spent years campaigning for such a multi-agency approach and have made “extensive recommendations to the Home Office, the police, the foreign and consular service, social services, schools and health authorities on good practice when dealing with women and girls who are at risk of forced marriage and/or abduction”.
Although I agree with raising the legal age of marriage to 18, I feel that we need more than age-based legislation to protect vulnerable young girls. This is something that should also be implemented through the EU Court of Justice, as it is not just a British problem. Shockingly, every day across the world, 39,000 young girls under the age of 18 are married – more than a third of these are under the age of 15.
Forced marriages are a human rights’ violation which includes the violation of children’s and women’s rights. This abuse has a detrimental effect on the victims’ mental and physical health, and certainly affects a victim’s rights to education, independence, freedom of choice and a rewarding career.
On International Women’s Day last month in Madrid, the €100,000 prize was awarded to Cameroonian activist Aissa Doumara, who has campaigned against forced marriages and violence against both women and men. However, despite numerous awareness campaigns, the European Commission’s annual report highlighted the slow progress of gender equality and the ongoing problem of gender-based violence and harassment. Even more worryingly, a BBC report earlier this year highlighted the lack of awareness around forced marriage, including the fact that some women were not even aware that it was illegal.
Collectively, all European countries need to tackle the issue of violence against girls and women and develop support resources and shelters to assist those at risk, those who have already been coerced into marriage and those who have escaped from their family homes. Mechanisms need to be put in place to protect those who fear repercussions of speaking out, including whistleblowers and anyone who helps a victim escape from an abusive family situation.
The Honour Based Violence Awareness Network (HBVAN) estimates that there are 12 honour killings in the UK each year and approximately 5,000 honour crimes are committed worldwide every year, although these figures are believed to be conservative because of the lack of focused reporting.
The European Foundation for Democracy has campaigned to forcefully counter criminal practices that violate individuals’ rights, including forced marriage and honour crimes, crimes that rob young women of the security, comfort and environment of unconditional love that many of us take for granted at home. Home is not a refuge for them, but a place of fear where their independence and human rights are denied and they are robbed of their happiness.
The reality of a forced marriage is usually servitude, rape and a life of misery. The decision to marry a life partner should never involve any of those elements.
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