UK Moves to Criminalize Forced Marriage
Forced marriage, an oppression particularly targeting girls in South Asian cultures, must be addressed by Western governments as well, argues author Shiuan Butler.
Prime Minister David Cameron proposed legislation in June that would make forced marriage a crime in the United Kingdom. “For too long in this country we have thought ‘well, it’s a cultural practice and we just have to run with it,’” he said. “We don’t. It’s a crime.”
Forced marriage is when a marriage is performed under duress without the full consent of both parties. A victim of a forced marriage may be emotionally blackmailed or physically abused or even kidnapped and tricked by parents. To resist betrothal is to risk ostracism, abuse or murder.
As Cameron described it, “You are taking 15, 16-year-old British citizens, taking them off to another country against their will, marrying them with someone against their will. That is a crime and it should be a crime.” Existing legislation in the UK deals with the oppressive practice as a civil, not criminal matter. Under the 2007 Forced Marriage Act, courts could issue protection orders when a victim, friend or local authority raises the alarm—though violating the order can result in up to two years imprisonment.
The government’s Forced Marriage Unit set up under the act provided advice or support in almost 1,500 cases last year, but the real number is thought to be higher. One study in 2009 estimated that up to 8,000 women and men, girls and boys could be getting forced to marry each year. A third of victims assisted by the unit last year were minors—schoolchildren who suddenly became wives either in the UK or abroad—and the youngest reported case is thought to have been just five years old. Figures show that more than half of victims overall are under 16. Most are South Asian. Half are Pakistani.
What are the consequences of early marriage? It’s not simply starting a family at an earlier age. Girls who marry young are more likely to be in abusive marriages—including being beaten and raped by their usually older husbands—and tend to believe their husbands are justified in doing so. They are more likely to contract HIV and be illiterate or have poor education as they usually drop out of school just before they are married and do not return.
Why does forced marriage happen in these Asian cultures? In many countries the importance of preserving family ‘honor’ and girls’ virginity is such that parents push their daughters into marriage well before they are ready and even before the legal age of that country. There is a belief that marriage safeguards against ‘immoral’ or ‘inappropriate behavior.’ Especially in poor families, girls may be viewed as an economic burden. So instead they are pushed out of their homes and into marriage oftentimes with an older strange man.
Opponents have warned that criminalizing forced marriage altogether could deter victims from coming forward, but the Government has announced an extra £500,000 of funding to help identify and support those affected. As Cameron said, “Passing a law isn’t enough, we have got to make sure there is proper training for the schools and the police, we want to make sure we put resources into allowing women who want to escape forced marriages to have somewhere else to go if their family rejects them.”
Marie Staunton of Plan, a global children’s charity based in the UK that works with the world’s poorest children to build a better future, believes the victims need as much help as they can get: “In the end, political convenience plus the difficulty of governments facing culturally sensitive issues could trump the rights of these children. We are already failing them, but they need more protection not less.”
For Staunton, legislating the criminalization of forced marriage in and of itself will not result in action or prevention. She asks how do we ensure a stronger focus on prevention—when too often the topic is deemed too sensitive to raise in schools or communities. One way forward would be to give the victim the choice between starting a civil case or asking the police to prosecute.
As compared to the UK, with its Forced Marriage Unit and a hotline already set up under the 2009 legislation, girls in the United States lack protection. “There’s a disturbing number of underage girls being forcibly married to older men in the United States,” says Julia Alanen, cofounder and director of the Global Justice Initiative. U.S. bills, one passed in the Senate and the other introduced in the House, on preventing child marriage only address forced marriages happening in developing countries. They fail to address or acknowledge its existence in the United States. We in this country still have much to learn from the UK model.
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