My Choice! My Right! My Life!

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It is no secret that the practice of forced marriage is prevalent within the South Asian community. Forced Marriage is defined as a union where one or both individuals involved, are coerced to consent to a marriage against their will and is still an issue which is ever-present within south-Asian culture. Despite an increase in societal knowledge and awareness, what was once considered a norm and a common practice is, unfortunately, still happening today.

The issue of forced marriage, though being normalised within South-Asian culture, is still considered taboo. That is why organisations like the Forced Marriage Unit and Karma Nirvana are so crucial to aid those in dire need of support.

The West Midlands has the second highest level of forced marriage in the country, accounting for 12 per cent of all cases according to an agency set up by the Home Office and Foreign Office.

New laws introduced last June in England and Wales saw forced marriage considered as a criminal offence, punishable by up to seven years in prison.

This month saw Birmingham’s Ark St. Albans Academy host a Forced Marriage Conference. An impactful event to raise awareness of the issue, its practice and the support available, as well as working towards a more positive future for those at risk of being forced into matrimony.

The conference, with the participation of the Forced Marriage Unit (FMU), West Midlands Police, Muslim Women’s Network-UK (MWN-UK) and many other partners, aimed to bring together young people, community members and faith leaders in a bid to eradicate a practice that no longer has a place amongst our society.

 “The reason we are here is to raise awareness about the issue and to make sure people know that support is available. Whether that’s people like our-selves who run a helpline where there is someone you can talk to who understands your culture and your religion and what the law says in terms of what your legal rights are in this country.”

When asked how events like this conference can make a difference: “I think awareness is key, knowledge is power. Having information means that you are better prepared to understand and issue and also to challenge it. That is why I believe it is important.” – Faeeza Vaid – Executive Director Muslim Women’s Network UK.

Taking a Practical Approach

In an effort to truly tackle the ongoing issue, the school orchestrated workshops covering all major fields. These included ‘It affects us to: male perspective’ run by Youth worker Raqia Akhtar and ‘Supporting lesbians, gays, bisexual and transgender people around forced marriage and domestic abuse,’ which was run by LGBT Independent Domestic Violence Advocate, Anna Robottom.

By presenting these alternate views, it cemented the fact that forced marriage is not only applicable to South-Asian females, but spreads far wider than we may have assumed.

 “Forced marriage isn’t a cultural value, arranged marriage is. There is a big difference between an arranged marriage and a forced marriage and we really wanted to clarify that it wasn’t just about South Asian girls because if we go down that root, we will miss those people that really need to be identified. So it’s about changing our perceptions and stereotypes and looking at what we can do to impact. It’s not about criminalising families, it’s about changing minds, to educate and re-educate them. Some of these parents love their children and feel they’re doing the right thing.”

 “We need agencies to work closer together, we need to ensure that other schools get involved, this is about our children in the West Midlands. Our guest speaker this morning, Jasvinder, it was really concerning to hear her say the majority of calls that they get are from the West Midlands, we need to be aware of that and we need to act on it.” – Patricia Stiyel, Safe Guarding Lead and Learning Support Manager Ark St. Alban’s Academy

Disability and Consent

Police have identified a growing concern of people with learning disabilities being forced into wedlock by parents. In the case of vulnerable individuals who lack the capacity to consent, coercion is not required for a marriage to be considered forced.

Those with learning difficulties and disabilities, who cannot comprehend what marriage fully entails, are particularly vulnerable to being coerced into forceful relationships.

Trudy Runham, guest speaker at the conference, spoke on her involvement with the West Midlands Police Force, particularly her efforts in obtaining the first Forced Marriage Protection order (FMPO) for a young adult without mental capacity.

In an earlier interview, West Midlands Police Sergeant Trudy Runham, said: “Sometimes people with learning difficulties are being forced into marriage by parents looking to secure a long-term carer for themselves in old age or for their disabled child. Another common motivators include trying to gain financial security, to obtain a visa for a non-UK resident, cultural pressures, or even out of a belief that marriage will somehow ‘cure’ the sufferer of their disability.

“I’m in no doubt it’s a vastly under-reported crime because the victims often don’t realise they’re being forced to marry or are easily coerced – and they are reliant on others to spot the signs and raise concerns with police or support groups. In many cases the families are receiving social or health care services so one of the aims of the conference is to highlight the issue amongst our council and NHS partners, plus wider communities, and urge them to look out for the signs report any concerns to police.”

Did You Know?

  • In 2015, 141 cases of forced marriages involved victims who had either a physical or learning disability.
  • Of these cases, 62% were male.
  • 33% were aged between 22 – 25.
  • 59% of families involved were from a Pakistani background.

 

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