The impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on safeguarding measures and specialist charities is limiting the support available to girls at risk of forced marriage.
Since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, organisations have raised concerns over the impact of ‘stay at home’ orders on women suffering domestic abuse and the need to ensure access to specialist services for women trapped at home. However, despite the focus on domestic violence, forms of ‘honour-based’ violence such as FGM and forced marriage – and the BAME women who are most at risk from them – have largely been kept out of the public discussion.
National lockdowns have increased the risk of forced marriage in a similar way to domestic violence – as most young people are forced into marriage by family members, ‘stay at home’ orders risk providing perpetrators with opportunities to exert further control. During the first lockdown, UK charities and the police reported increased calls from teenagers and young women – some as young as 14 – worried that their parents were planning to take them abroad to marry after lockdown was lifted.
The risk for children and teenagers is heightened by school closures and cancelled exams. Education is widely recognised as a safety net for girls that may otherwise be at risk, and as a result campaigners have highlighted the danger of families keeping their daughters out of school and/or using closures as an opportunity to force them into marriage. This concern is made even more urgent by reports that the pandemic has increased the number of children out of school, with a lack of oversight making it difficult to track pupils that have left school and enabling them to slip through the ‘net’; facing dangers like forced marriage without proper safeguarding in place. Alongside this, Save the Children have voiced concerns that the economic consequences of the pandemic could increase the risk of girls being taken out of school and forced to marry in exchange for money.
As a result, the pandemic has not only heightened the risk of forced marriage, but has made this already “hidden crime” even more invisible to authorities. Factors like ‘stay at home’ orders, school closures and the impact on specialist services and charities mean that women and girls are limited in their options for seeking help, cut off from school safeguarding policies and community support networks. Limits to outreach support and drop-in sessions mean that specialist charities are less able to reach out to victims who might need support.
Charities have stressed the need for government support to limit the disruption to preventative services. Our CEO Sajda Mughal has written about the negative impact of COVID-19 on BAME charities, with a distinct lack in government funding being set aside for grassroots organisations that work with BAME communities. The disproportionate impact of COVID-19 on BAME communities – as well as the heightened risk of harmful practices like forced marriage and FGM – makes the need for government support for organisations like JAN Trust even more urgent. You can find out more about our awareness raising and preventative work surrounding the issue of forced marriage here.
If you are based in the UK and worried that you may become a victim of forced marriage, there is help available:
The Forced Marriage Unit – 020 7008 0151