It’s the time of year when we start thinking about booking our summer holidays but for some the summer break is a terrifying prospect as they worry about being taken abroad by their family and forced into a marriage to someone they may never have met.
Summer is the peak time for forced marriages to take place – two-thirds of which take place in South Asia. The Forced Marriage Unit which works across the Home Office and the Foreign Office dealt with 1500 cases of forced marriage last year – 400 of those during the summer months. The charity Karma Nirvana dealt with over 5000 enquiries – 2000 of those during the summer.
Many of the victims are of school age and effectively “disappear” during the summer and either don’t return at all or don’t return for many months sometimes returning already pregnant. Unfortunately when this happens many schools do not question it, (incorrectly) seeing it as a cultural issue rather than one of child abuse or human rights. I believe that it is their fear of being perceived as racist which prevents questions being asked and fails those they should be protecting. As a result a campaign has been launched to force schools to keep a register of pupils who fail to return after the summer holidays so that action can be taken to help them as many are left stranded abroad. In addition to this I would like to see compulsory training for all teachers, social workers, NHS staff and police officers around the issue of forced marriage to try to prevent them taking place. It is estimated that there are 5000 forced marriages affecting UK citizens each year and many believe that this figure is just the tip of the iceberg.
I deal with cases of forced marriage on a regular basis and although the majority are girls and women it can also affect boys and men. Many of the clients I speak to say that they are taken by their family for a “holiday” abroad and only when they get there are they told that they will have to get married. Often their family will tell them that they will not be given their passport to come home unless they go through with it. Some are told about it before they are taken and in some cases do try to get help in the UK but tragically are often let down leaving them feeling that there is nothing they can do. To be forced into a marriage means that the victim will then be raped as a forced marriage does not result in consensual sex and they will often also suffer domestic violence. To refuse a forced marriage means being alienated by your family and often the local community and in some cases can lead to violence or murder as the family believe that protecting their “izzat” or family honour is the ultimate goal. This effectively means that many who refuse have to leave their families, their school and the local area to ensure their safety. This is an extremely hard thing to do particularly for a young person and understandably many do not have the courage to do it. Leaving the family is also the time when they are most at risk of violence or murder so it is something that needs to be done with expert guidance.
It is estimated that there are at least 12 “honour killings” connected to forced marriage in the UK each year. Many believe that this figure is far higher. Victims such as Shafilea Ahmed who was murdered by her family in 2003 tragically asked the school and the police for help but was let down by them. The Forced Marriage Unit talks about the “one-chance Rule” meaning that agencies may only get one opportunity to help the victim and if this is not dealt with properly the consequences can be fatal. It is too late to learn about this complex area after you have been approached and therefore vital that agencies are trained in the basics and know who the local expert is to refer the victim to as this could save their life.
Forced Marriage Protection Orders obtained by lawyers have been available for some time which contain a power of arrest if broken however there is currently no criminal offence of forced marriage something which will be remedied later this year and something I very much welcome as it sends a strong message that this is unacceptable and damaging.
See Rachel discuss the issue of forced marriage on BBC News:
Karma Nirvana – charity supporting victims of honour crimes and forced marriages – http://www.karmanirvana.org.uk/
Freedom Charity – Empowering young people to feel they have the tools and confidence and support around the issues of family relationships which can lead to early and forced marriage and dishonour based violence – http://www.freedomcharity.org.uk/
Forced Marriage Unit – a joint Foreign and Commonwealth Office and Home Office unit was which set up in January 2005 to lead on the Government’s forced marriage policy, outreach and casework – https://www.gov.uk/forced-marriage