Report on Forced Marriage in the UK

This post is contributed by Julia Foden, a PhD Candidate in the CCJHR and Faculty of Law and her research is funded through major IRCHSS thematic project grant for a 3 year research programme on Gender, Multiculturalism and Religious Diversity in contemporary Ireland awarded to her supervisor, and co-director of the CCJHR, Dr. Siobhan Mullally.

A report, “Forced marriage, family cohesion and community engagement: national learning through a case study of Luton” by Dr Nazia Khanum, published this week in the UK has found that while the scale of the problem of forced marriage cannot be accurately quantified, it is likely to be significantly higher than previous figures suggested. Some reports (Guardian) have suggested figures of 3000 for Britain as a whole based on the comprehensive research carried out in Luton.

Dr Khanum’s research, which was funded by the Home Office, involved interviews with a wide range of community support groups and state and semi-state agencies. She found that remarkably few victims or potential victims approached Citizens Advice Bureaux, Law Centres or the police, and suggests that the apparent preference for community-based organisations could be for reasons of trust and familiarity.

The Metropolitan Police Authority, responding to the report, has explained that because of the way crimes are recorded as, for example, beatings or kidnappings, the scale of the problem of forced marriage has been difficult to quantify. Previously the only ‘official figure’ was based on the workload of the Forced Marriage Unit. This is a unit within the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, established in 2005, which provides support to victims, in particular consular assistance in cases where young people are taken overseas, and guidance to professionals such as social workers, police officers and education and health professionals. The unit deals with 300 cases a year, of which 15% are men. It was felt by many people that this was the tip of the iceberg and now Dr Nazia Khanum’s report has found over 300 approaches to external bodies for advice around forced marriage in Luton alone per year.

Dr Khanum’s research also found that while the majority of the cases involved people of South Asian (mainly Pakistani and Bangladeshi) descent, forced marriage was also occurring in other ethnic minority communities such as people from Africa, the Middle East and parts of Eastern Europe.

It is important to emphasise the difference between forced marriage and arranged marriage. An arranged marriage is where parents or other family members take a leading role in making arrangements but both the parties to the marriage consent to it. A forced marriage was defined in A Choice By Right, a report by a Home Office Working Group in 2000 as

“… a marriage conducted without the valid consent of both parties, where duress is a factor. It is a violation of internationally recognised human rights standards and cannot be justified on religious or cultural grounds.”

Dr Nazia Khanum’s report suggests broadening the definition of forced marriage to include ‘false marriage’. By this she means a marriage willingly entered into but where there has been deception or lack of adequate knowledge about the other partner.

An important piece of legislation was passed in the UK last year and is due to come into force in the autumn. The Forced Marriage (Civil Protection) Act 2007 was originally introduced in the House of Lords as a private members bill by Lord Lester of Herne Hill and was then taken over by the government. The new law will enable courts to issue orders to prevent forced marriages and to protect people who may be or have been forced into marriage. An order could include a prohibition or restriction on conduct (including aiding and abetting) or could make requirements. An order can be sought by the victim, a relevant third party or another person with the leave of the court. Force is widely defined, including “coerce by threats or other psychological means” and “marriage” can mean a religious or civil marriage including a marriage which is not legally binding. The orders will be civil orders but with a power of arrest attached. The Act has the support of organisations working in the area such as Southall Black Sisters (position paper), Karma Nirvana and Imkaan, as well as the human rights organisation Liberty (briefing). It is innovative and has been widely welcomed as civil law remedies should protect and empower women, and the ‘victim’ will be able to initiate or cease proceedings.

It was decided, following a consultation in the UK (A Wrong Not A Right), not to create a specific criminal offence of forcing someone into marriage. It was felt that the disadvantages, such as forcing the practice underground, outweighed the advantages.