Is criminalising forced marriage protection enough?
June 10, 2012 in Uncategorized
Last week Theresa May and David Cameron confirmed the Coalition’s intention to criminalise forced marriage in England, Wales and Northern Ireland. Upholding that the practice was “little more than slavery”, Cameron said the issue had been tolerated as a “cultural practice” for too long. The time, he added, was right to take action and enforce prison sentences on parents and perpetrators guilty of the act.
These measures have cross party backing and were met with considerable support from the public. With high profile cases such as that of Shafelia Ahmed, it would easy to see this as a truly positive step forward in dealing with this abhorrent, traumatic and often life threatening practice of violence against young people, especially women and girls. Surely to criminalise an act that can incorporate domestic abuse, harassment, assault, theft, coercion, rape and emotional trauma to the person is a good thing – right? Surely such an approach will lead to the increased justice and safety for the victims? Well yes, I agree. Laws that criminalise unsavoury behaviours and practices are essential in the progression of victim rights and safety. However, effective implementation requires certain conditions. Delving deeper, it would seem we need to tread with caution.
Despite forced marriage cases having always been part of the domestic violence workload, especially those that provide specialist support to black and minority ethnic (BME) women, it was the death of Ruksana Naz in 1999 that propelled the issue into the media and state centre court. Pioneering feminist organisations such as Southall Black Sisters launched campaigns urging the government to take the same effective action for minority women as they would in any other case of domestic abuse/child abuse, as many professionals were reluctant to intervene in what they classed as “cultural practices”, fearing that they would be called racist should they do so. Since then, there have been some positive shifts in state practice, including the Multi Agency Good Practice Guidelines on Forced Marriage and the introduction of the Forced Marriage (Civil Protection) Act 2007. Under the Act, courts have the power to make Forced Marriage Protection Orders to stop someone from forcing another person into marriage, an imperative for the protection of vulnerable people at risk.
Despite these gains, I have to challenge the Coalition’s rationale as they forge ahead with the legislation and ask questions as to both the practical application and sincerity of their intentions.
One of the main concerns with the legislation is to do with uptake – a point many of those who work directly with survivors are concerned with. The Ashiana Network, the only dedicated forced marriage refuge in the country, consulted with all 20 of their residents as to the effectiveness of criminalising such marriages. 19 women responded that they would not have gone to the authorities if forced marriage became a criminal offence – despite their experience, they simply would not want to see their parents prosecuted and potentially sent to prison. Additionally, the repercussions of taking parents to court would also place women in difficult positions whereby they are most likely ostracised from their families and communities with the fear of violent retaliations. This is often forgotten, as unlike traditional ways in which we conceptualise domestic abuse, the abusers are your actual parents and family members. Prosecuting you family not something many women wish to do despite the violence. Given that there are already criminal remedies in place to prosecute perpetrators of rape, assault, kidnap, harassment and putting a person in fear of violence, surely a strengthening of such remedies including the training of staff and other professionals with regards to dealing with cases more effectively would be a preferred option?
Activists have also criticised the government on their short termist approach to dealing with domestic abuse within the current financial environment. Women’s organisations offer vital, life saving services to those experiencing domestic abuse including forced marriage. They not only provide emergency accommodation to ensuring safety away from the abuse, they also help women navigate the complex administrative and legal systems to ensure her basic human rights are met, supporting her to make difficult decisions about her future. This support is critical if women and girls are to find long term solutions to meet their needs, particularly when there are immigration complications. It is indeed the state’s responsibility to ensure that correct and effective agencies are available to vulnerable people both governmental and within the third sector. With this in mind, it is galling that since 2010 and the austerity budget, 40 percent of groups working with victims of domestic and sexual violence have been forced to reduce staff and 28 percent have had to cut back services amid funding cuts from the local authorities of sometimes 100 percent, according to a survey of 37 organisations by the University of Worcester. Councils are being forced to cut funding to essential services including those for victims of domestic abuse including forced marriage. Given that there are simply not enough support groups to begin with, it is ironic that despite Cameron’s assurance of protection, the further erosion of the women’s sector under his leadership, will in fact increase not reduce women’s vulnerability as fewer refuges are able to survive the fragile financial climate. Would it not be more beneficial to victims to properly resource and finance such life saving organisations than to introduce new legislation, which many victims will simply not use, without effective safety nets? Despite Cameron’s bold statements, – does this not appear slightly incongruous?
Whilst I agree with and welcome any legislation that intends to send a strong message to perpetrators that forced marriage will not be tolerated, this Bill alone, cannot work without a strong and robust women’s sector. Unfortunately, this is the very sector that is likely to face the brunt of the deep cuts being imposed by this government, and women’s lives will be lost.
- Sandhya Sharma