The Government must act NOW, by Sabbir Malik

The Government must act NOW, by Sabbir Malik

A number of grassroots organisations campaigning to eliminate violence against women and girls such as JAN Trust voiced concerns at the Government’s approach to criminalise forced marriages. JAN Trust is at the forefront of raising awareness and undertaking advocacy work to end the practice of forced marriage; they work with victims and are the only charity in the UK that work with perpetrators to change mindsets. The Anti-Social Behavior, Crime & Policing Act (2014) which came into force on the 16th June 2014 and prohibits forced marriages as well as outlining the consequences may well have been prematurely passed. Criminalization carries that risk of driving the issue underground and isolate victims further.

There are organizations that advocate recognition of forced marriage as a specific criminal offence. Whilst it is unarguable and necessary for the government to take proactive action to tackle forced marriages especially from an equality perspective whereby those belonging to affected communities ought to be afforded human rights protections. This certainly does not mean the criminal route is the most cogent approach or one that will necessarily end the practice.

The UK Government have followed a similar model to other European countries including Denmark where despite forced marriage having been recognised as a criminal offence for a number of years and a strengthening of Danish laws in 2008, not one case has yet been brought to trial; worryingly, according to the Global Justice Initiative in 2012, forced marriage occurrences in Denmark saw a significant rise, post-criminalisation. Similarly, in the UK, despite tough legislation against the practice of female genital mutilation, no parent has yet been prosecuted, demonstrating that criminalisation is by no means an effective tool in eradicating a cultural practice; rather, it can produce the opposite to the desired effect .

Victims of forced marriage predominantly belong to a South Asian background but by no means limited to these communities. Central to these cultures is the emphasis of izzat (honour) and sharam (shame) which are sadly but too often prioritized above human rights norms. Victims are raised with these values and hold a very different mindset to their peers, despite the contravention of their fundamental right to choose or the subsequent abuse they may persist in upholding the tradition of a forced marriage. Victims and potential victims will undoubtedly feel reluctant to seek legal assistance due to fear of repercussions of their parents being incarcerated. This is documented through research conducted by JAN Trust and general consensus amongst survivors of forced marriage and honour dominant cultures including notable survivors and authors such as Sameem Ali and Sarbjit Kaur Athwal.

In an interview earlier this year, Sameen Ali pointed out that elements of forced marriage, i.e., kidnapping, sexual and physical violence, blackmail and false imprisonment are already recognised criminal acts and therefore, stereotyping South Asians and introducing a new law to police selected communities was not necessary. The new law could be seen to be reinforcing stereotypes, particularly toward South Asian communities who have on occasion been portrayed in media as monolithic and primitive whereby forced marriage is a accepted cultural norm. Such portrayals are misrepresentative and fail to highlight the practice of forced marriage is subject to much condemnation from within affected community with prominent groups and religious leaders lending their voice against forced marriages.

The creation and reinforcement of stereotypes results in the opposite of the desired effect and risks leading victims to feel that the Government have failed to understand the underlying issues behind forced marriage this includes lack of education and social inclusion amongst immigrant parents and fear of Western influence and integration. We cannot expect victims who have a potent distrust of the Government and statutory services to approach them for help, let alone on an issue that may be a matter of life and death.

Governmental bodies, statutory and voluntary organizations need to undertake substantive research into family dynamics that regulate forced marriages to ensure future implementation of policy results in accurate and appropriate training to statutory service workers. This would enable them to recognize early risk indicators of potential victims and instigate culturally sensitive interventions.

 Unfortunately, government rhetoric has a tendency to consider extreme cases of forced marriage; there is a failure on part of policy to understand the honour culture and its entrenched nature in communities. Forced marriages are rarely spontaneous; they are part of a gradual process which correspond with external factors such as community and family pressure and one’s own motivation to be recognised as the “ideal religious family”. Victims of forced marriage have already indicated that would be averse to prosecuting their parents should they be faced with the prospect of a forced marriage. Government focus needs to shift from prosecution to support for victims which they desperately need.

The notion of family honour and rejection of Western ideals is only exacerbated by current Government misunderstanding of the issue and multicultural policy failure. Organisations such as JAN Trust, at the forefront of providing assistance to victims, are grossly underfunded; the Government needs to work closely with grassroots organisations that have the expertise and experience on aiding victims and families as well as offering them the holistic support they require. They must act now to ensure that victims are provided proactive support, individually tailored to both them and their families.

The government needs to increase funding into initiatives that seek to eradicate forced marriages. The new law criminalizing forced marriages (Anti-social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Act 2014) can be viewed as a reactionary approach stirred by stereotyping. Furthermore, the law is in danger of pushing the practice underground, parents may seek to conceal early indicators of forced marriages for instance they may book airline tickets abroad in advance.  Victims of forced marriage have strongly indicated they would be unwilling to prosecute their parents.

JAN Trust carries out awareness-raising, preventative and direct support work on forced marriage, hate crime and honour based violence. Since the launch of their award-winning Against Forced Marriage campaign in 2011, as well as providing direct support to victims, they have been delivering workshops to statutory and voluntary organisations as well as schools, community and youth groups.  For more information on JAN Trust please visit and