Forced marriage consultation ends

Groups divided over mandatory reporting

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Splits in opinion have emerged over whether mandatory reporting of forced marriage will help tackle the problem.

Forced marriage became a criminal offence in 2014, and to date there have been four convictions across the UK.

A forced marriage is defined as one in which one or both spouses do not consent to the union, and violence, threats or any other form of coercion are involved.

Forcing someone to marry against their will already carries a maximum sentence of seven years.

But a government consultation, just ended, has asked whether it is necessary to introduce a new mandatory reporting duty relating to cases of force marriage.

That would compel health professionals and others to report cases of forced marriage if they encountered them.

The consultation also asked for views on how the current guidance on forced marriage could be improved and strengthened.

Responses to the consultation have varied.

Charity Karma Nirvana highlighted that many potential victims in areas where forced marriage is more likely are unaware it is a crime.

The Leeds-based charity, which has a strong record in helping victims of forced marriage and honour-based abuse over 25 years, emphasised that if victims were unaware it is a crime, they would be unlikely to seek help.

“Big scandal”

The charity viewed the consultation positively.

Natasha Rattu, Karma Nirvana executive director, said: “We are very pleased that the Home Secretary announced the consultation last year.

“The consultation came on the back of an investigation we carried out. It really highlighted the issues around forced marriage and victims.

“We found that even when the Home Office was aware of cases of forced marriage, they were still allowing foreign nationals to gain entry to the country. So it’s been a big scandal and we’ve been able to lift the lid on it.”

Through this Karma Nirvana was able to meet with the Home Secretary and further explain its work and concerns. This resulted in the decision to undertake the public consultation.

The Home Office estimates that between 5,000 and 8,000 people are at risk of being forced into marriage every year in the UK.

Although 78 per cent of reports logged in 2017 related to female victims, 21 per cent involved male victims.

In 2018, the Forced Marriage Unit – a joint effort between the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and Home Office – gave advice or support in 1,196 UK cases.

Rattu said: “Forced marriage is massively unprotected and a lot of that has to do with people not knowing how to identify it and not having the confidence to call it out when they see it.

“From our perspective we think the mandatory reporting specifically should go to social workers, teachers and health professionals.

“They should legally be able to report on suspected cases of forced marriage.

“We must ensure that these agencies are trained sufficiently so that they can identify and report it.’’

Left in the dark

However, others have raised concerns about victims and families being left in the dark about the legislation.

More than 60 women joined a community-led consultation in Bradford recently looking at forced marriage and many admitted they did not know it was a criminal offence.

Kaneez Khan, coordinator for Near Neighbours, a programme to promote interaction in multi-religious, inner-city communities, said: “We’ve found there’s a vast majority of women who weren’t aware that forced marriage is illegal.

“I speak to a lot of people within communities and I have found that a lot of people have disagreed with the mandatory reporting duty.

“People don’t think this is the way forward. They want more to be done on a humanitarian level.

“They want to be educated on the law and they want people to work with them.”

Khan said many believe that prevention work is needed to educate perpetrators, who are often the victims’ parents. Those victims might not want the police questioning and prosecuting their family members. This often leads to victims not wanting any intervention.

Khan said: “A lot of the older generations don’t know about the legislation. They aren’t on social media. They don’t watch the news. They might not watch English channels on the television. The word needs to be spread within these marginalised communities to tell them that what they are doing is wrong.”

“Challenge mindsets”

But Rattu said education can only go so far.

“We have a lot of people who are very educated. Some women who have contacted our helpline have parents that are doctors, lawyers and professionals,” she said.

“I don’t know how far education can go to challenge mindsets that have been deeply ingrained in a belief system of honour and this being the most important thing to families.”

She emphasised her belief in the importance of mandatory reporting.

“My view on this is that we’ve got to do it because now we have no concrete evidence of how often forced marriage is happening.

“It can only be a good thing that we get more people reporting on it and for this to happen we must prepare ourselves and recognise the need for this resource.

“It’s good to have concerns, but in time we will be able to develop a workforce that is more than capable of dealing with the issue.”

Photo: The Mufti of Mirpur, Hafiz Nazir Ahmed, and members of the Khari Sharif Welfare Society (KSWS) visiting the UK in 2012 to campaign against forced marriage amongst the Pakistani diaspora (Foreign and Commonwealth Office)

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