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June - July 2007


Lifestyle

Forced Marriage

by Lord Navnit Dholakia


The United Kingdom has recently moved towards setting the global standard for dealing with the issue of forced marriage, by introducing a bill that would make forced marriage a civil, rather than criminal offence. Forced marriage, where a victim is pressed into marriage against their will, is a growing problem around the world. This practice can lead to huge stresses on tightly knit communities, it can lead to young students being removed from school and virtually confined to their homes, it can be used as a tool for immigrations violations, and at its worst, can lead to honour killings.  

The new Bill distinctly understands the differences between Forced marriage and Arranged marriage. In making this distinction clear, this Bill does not discriminate against specific communities, nor will it lead to prejudice in the future.

Rather, this Bill has used a process of consultation to provide proactive solutions to an issue that Government has been working on since 1999, when the Home Office set up a working group to investigate the issue. This work was done with the best of intentions, but it did not result in any concrete achievements, except to prove without a doubt the scope of the problem. The Government did instruct FCO offices to be more proactive in providing support to those seeking help within forced marriages, but that is not enough. Such an approach is not comprehensive, as FCO locations are few and far between, may not be easily accessible, and most importantly, such an approach relies on the victim seeking out an office of the UK government, rather than the UK Government seeking out ways to help the victims. What is needed is legislation, because then, for the first time ever, women will then be able to know that this practice is illegal, say to the perpetrators that it is unequivocally wrong, and use the law as a basis for action.

The reason that the many years of prior work resulted in no new legislation hinged upon the criminality of forced marriage. There was no consensus towards making forced marriage a crime in its own right. It was considered too costly and complex to introduce, given that existing laws provided a workable form of protection. But most importantly, it was considered an unwieldy solution that might drive the problem further underground, prevent reconciliation, isolate the victim and unfairly stigmatize certain communities.

When dealing with a problem where fewer than one in ten cases are reported, meaning that the 300 cases reported by the Home Office and Foreign office are just the tip of the iceberg, the need for sensitivity and respect is all the more necessary. In the diverse communities where forced marriage takes place, it is often parents or close family members who force a victim into marriage. There is a strong chance that the victims of forced marriage would be unwilling to report their own parents, or other family members, if the punishments included jail and a criminal record.

However, by not pursuing other forms of legislation, victims may, on the other hand, be less aware of their avenues for redress, and communities may be less aware that such actions are wrong in today’s society. As Mike O’ Brien stated in the House of Commons Adjournment Debate on Human Rights: “Multi-Cultural sensitivity is not an excuse for moral blindness.” It is a tragedy that a victim of forced marriage may have to use charges of rape, kidnapping, domestic abuse or torture as a way to deal with forced marriage. If the victim has not yet been subject to such depravity, but is in fear of it, where does that leave her? In a state of confusion, wondering what her rights are.

This legislation is not about racial profiling or insensitivity, because all across South Asia, forced marriage is a process that happens only in the minority, and there, like in any culture, those that abuse the trust of their families are not respected. It may eventually iron itself out in the United Kingdom, as second and third generations of families are born here, the government must spur this process on, smooth its acceptance, and increase awareness, and for this we need legislation to help.

This legislation looks after the welfare and future of the young generations of British people, by making this an issue among first and second generation British people, and it fulfills the UK’s role as leaders in the global community, by setting an example that countries who face forced marriages within their borders may wish to follow.

A law is necessary, because it is an unequivocal statement of public policy, whereas the current patchwork of laws that can be used to challenge forced marriage do not present any overt statement against the act itself. By using an existing and ill-defined set of laws to tackle the issue, we are putting the burden of proof onto the victim, a victim who may be reluctant to come forward anyway, and we will allow the issue to continue to be swept under the carpet.

Most people are law abiding citizens, and most people look to their community for support, and this legislation allows people to point out an obvious wrongdoing, and to pursue an avenue of complaint where prison is not the end result. By making the issue a civil one, it elegantly gives direct redress to victims, without any of the drawbacks suggested by the research regarding the implementation of criminal legislation. The remedies in this bill focus on the protection of the victim and the prevention of the forced marriage rather than the punishment of a crime. The bill is proactive and preventative rather than reactionary. Therefore, a civil remedy to this problem will help change people’s behavior, because it will allow victims to come forward in pursuit of compensation, mediation and reconciliation – the cornerstones that have been requested by the victims themselves.

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