Combatting Forced Marriages

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The Asian View with Bushra Irfan

Forced marriages is a subject which has been a topic of discussion for communities and government alike for many years now without much progress on any part.

A few years ago the government engaged communities to discuss the possibility of making forced marriages a criminal offence. This was abandoned by the government as the perpetrators of the offence are often much loved family members and it is unlikely that the victim would want them to go to prison or sustain any criminal action against them.

From such an extreme measure the government then went to the other extreme of not doing anything about it. There is still a problem and it does need to be addressed. Like all problems it is unlikely to go away without being addressed. The Forced Marriage Unit is currently reported to be tackling around 300 cases on forced marriages per year which shows there is a real problem.

Thankfully, a ‘hands on’ and common sense approach has been brought to the forefront by the Liberal Democrat Peer, Lord Lester who introduced the Private Members Bill which received Royal Assent on the 26th July 2007.

The Bill which is called ‘Forced Marriage (Civil Protection) Act 2007’ makes forced marriage a civil offence. It therefore provides the civil remedies of being able to obtain injunctions to stop the marriage from taking place and makes aiding and abetting, amongst other things an offence. Surprisingly, before this there was no law at all to give protection to a person who was being forced into a marriage. Fortunately the government made a U-turn and supported the Bill and the Conservatives also gave their support.

Although the Conservatives gave their support they did not feel the Bill went far enough and have given further suggestions to counter forced marriages namely,

• People will need to make a pre-requisite declaration of intention to marry abroad and name the potential spouse

• Place a time requirement between those who have been previously married abroad to marry abroad again

• Potential spouses have to take the ‘Life in the UK’ Citizenship test

Whether these measures would in any way assist in reducing forced marriages is debatable. It is argued by the Conservatives that if the potential spouses’ name is being listed by the applicant before going abroad it will reduce forced marriages.

They may be right to a certain extent where physical force is being used but how is that going to counter when a person has subjected themselves to the marriage due to emotional force? The person may already know the name of the potential spouse and will let the authorities know if they have to. What about the people who are genuine but do not know the name of the spouse until they go abroad and meet the person? Is this not going to add to the pressure of being pushed in a direction by parents rather than being left with a choice?

Forced marriages must be distinguished from arranged marriages and forced marriages are against our religion and culture. When a person is being ‘forced’ to agree to a marriage due to emotional force (which is the most common), I fail to see how any external forces can help within the privacy and confines of a marriage unless the individual wishes to be helped. Generally the ones being forced physically into a marriage will be taken abroad and generally stay there. The ones who arrive back in England are highly unlikely to stay married and will obtain external help if required to get out of the marriage. Therefore they will no longer be in a ‘forced marriage’ situation.

Marriages break up for numerous reasons and across cultures especially in England. The high rate of divorce in the indigenous community who does not undergo arranged or forced marriages speak for itself. Therefore it is extremely difficult to attribute the blame to an arranged or forced marriage.

Many marriages break up and the spouse may call another person from abroad in a second marriage. The Home Office needs to ensure the checks they make before giving the indefinite visa of the couple living together happily and intending to do so would be more appropriate than extending a time limit as the people who wish to do so will still do so by waiting for the requisite time to expire.

I also totally fail to understand the concept of how undergoing a ‘Life in the UK’ test is going to prevent a forced marriage.

We have to realise that there is a large cultural gap between the people who have grown up abroad and those, no matter how strict or religious they are, are brought up in England. It would be more sensible for parents who have already lived a lifetime in the UK to accept this and to acknowledge that there is more chances of a successful marriage if the children who are brought up here married people from here.

A recent British Asian Survey of 16-34 year olds commissioned by the ICM as part of the BBC Asian Network found that a third of the people said they did not feel ‘British’ and a third said that they were not treated as British by ‘white’ UK public.

The time has come to reduce complications in our lives and culture and marry our children from the same country they were brought up in. This will help to reduce the focus on our people by reducing criticism in the media and become more acceptable for the indigenous community to accept us. Perhaps the time has also come to educate the indigenous community to attempt to accept us as being British……….. it does take two hands to clap, remember?

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