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/ 19 Aug 2014

The Criminalisation of Forced Marriage

The UK hosted the first Girl Summit in July this year. David Cameron announced that violence against women is at the top of Britain’s aid agenda. An aim of the summit was for forced marriage to be ended within a generation. David Cameron has previously condemned forced marriage as “little more than slavery”.

Forced marriage is when one or both people do not, or cannot, for example in circumstances where they may have learning difficulties, consent to a marriage yet pressure is used to force them into the marriage. Such pressure can be in many forms including financial abuse, emotional blackmail, psychological pressure, physical abuse and sexual abuse. Anita Prem, the founder of Freedom, a UK-based charity which gives support to victims of forced marriage, has said that, “in the most tragic cases, people forced into marriage become domestic slaves by day and sexual slaves by night.”

Forced marriages are however to be distinguished from arranged marriages which are consensual for both parties and both parties have a choice to refuse to enter the relationship.

The Forced Marriage Unit (FMU) was set up by the Home Office and Foreign and Commonwealth Office in January 2005. The aim of the FMU was to provide support and assistance to victims of forced marriage. The FMU runs a helpline for those who are concerned about a forced marriage, and the number is 020 7008 0151. The FMU also takes the lead on the governments forced marriage policy, outreach work and casework. It operates not only within the UK but also provides consular support overseas.

In 2013 the FMU provided advice or support related to a possible forced marriage to more than 1,300 people. The government however estimates that as many as 8,000 victims may be pressured into forced marriages each year. Campaigners agree that the true figures could be thousands more than the FMU statistics due to under reporting. The practice of forced marriage affects men and women from different cultural groups however victims are generally young girls. In 2013 82% of the victims assisted by FMU were female and 88% of the victims were under the age of 21 years.

The government has supported their commitment to ending forced marriage by criminalising the act on 16 June 2014.

Section 121 of the Anti-Social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Act 2014 makes it a criminal offence to:

• Use violence, threats or any other form of coercion for the purpose of causing another person to enter into a forced marriage.
• Take someone overseas to force them to marry (whether or not the forced marriage takes place).
• Marry someone who lacks the mental capacity to consent to the marriage (whether they’re pressured to or not).

The offence is punishable by up to seven years imprisonment. The law enforcement agencies will be given the power to pursue perpetrators in other countries where a UK national is involved. The new legislation will now allow victims the option of whether to pursue civil or criminal action to seek protection and/or redress.

The civil option of Forced Marriage Protection Orders (FMPO) was introduced by the Forced Marriage (Civil Protection) Act on 25 November 2008. Under this act the police, social services and victims can apply for FMPO’s. More than one person can be protected by a FMPO. This is useful in circumstances where more than one sibling is at risk. Legal aid is available for victims to seek legal representation for an FMPO and there is also no longer a court fee to submit an application to the court.

Section 120 of the 2014 Act inserts section 63CA into the Family Law Act 1996. That provision makes it a criminal offence to breach a FMPO. The breach of an FMPO therefore now has a maximum penalty of five years imprisonment and/or an unlimited fine. Scotland however criminalised breaches of FMPO’s in 2011 yet this has led to a dramatic decrease in victims seeking legal redress. This is concerning as already since the introduction of FMPO’s there have only been a small number of applications made per year.

It has been argued that the new legislation was not necessary as there is currently sufficient criminal legislation available for victims to access protection. This includes laws on GBH, abduction, kidnapping and child protection. Also FMPO’s have been available within civil law. The Law Society has however backed the introduction of the law saying that not only will ensure victims have access to legal redress but it will also deter potential offenders. Supporters feel the legislation is necessary to demonstrate that forced marriage is neither legitimised nor justified by any religion, culture or tradition.

Feminist BME (Black, Minority and Ethnic) organisations have been divided as to whether this new legislation will protect victims or further isolate them. It is argued that victims will not want to criminalise the perpetrators who are in the majority of circumstances closely related to the victims. This is partially supported by the fact that FMPO’s already are not widely applied for. The new law will also arguably be difficult to enforce when dealing with victims who have been forced into marriage via emotional blackmail as it will be difficult to prove coercion in court.

The Home Secretary Theresa May has accepted that legislation alone is not sufficient and this will have to be supported by continued assistance from the government and frontline agencies to provide protection to victims. In the era however of the government’s austerity cuts it will remain to be seen whether additional financial support is provided to such agencies by the state to ensure that support services continue to be available for victims of forced marriage.

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