Does the Law Do Enough To Protect Women from Forced Marriages?

Forced marriage is a hidden crime. Although 1,200[PM1] possible forced marriage cases were flagged to authorities in 2017, there are likely to be many more cases. This is because the entire concept of a forced marriage involves intimidation and coercion, ensuring victims are too frightened to reach out for help. In addition, victims are usually very young; of the 1,200 reported cases last year to the government’s Forced Marriage Unit (FMU), more than a quarter involved victims below the age of 18. And it is a misconception to believe only young women are subject to forced marriages; a fifth of the cases reported related to male victims.

What is forced marriage?

A forced marriage has been an offence in its own right since June 2014. It is a specific offence under section 121 of the Anti-Social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Act 2014. Section 121(1) reads:

Offence of forced marriage: England and Wales

(1) A person commits an offence under the law of England and Wales if he or she—

(a) uses violence, threats or any other form of coercion for the purpose of causing another person to enter into a marriage, and

(b) believes, or ought reasonably to believe, that the conduct may cause the other person to enter into the marriage without free and full consent.

Force is not restricted to direct threats of violence. It can include coercion by threats or other psychological means. It also includes threats made to a third party, designed to force another to accept a marriage.

Late last month, a couple from Leeds were convicted of tricking their daughter into travelling to Bangladesh in order to force her into marriage. The girl and her siblings were told they would be travelling to Bangladesh for a holiday. On arrival, the victim was told she must marry her cousin. She was assaulted and told that if she refused the match, her father would slit her throat and ‘chop her up in 18 seconds’ – one for each year of her life.

After being made aware of the escalating situation, the British High Commission in Bangladesh, the Forced Marriage Unit, and Bangladeshi police worked together to rescue the victim and bring her safely back to the UK.

What type of protection is available to protect people from being forced into marriage?

A Forced Marriage Protection Order (FMPO) can be made under the Family Law Act 1996, to protect a person who has been, or is being, forced into marriage against their will.

The court has generous discretion regarding the type of FMPO it can make. An FMPO can:

  • prevent a forced marriage from taking place
  • require the hand-over of a passport or travel documents
  • stop intimidation or violence
  • reveal the whereabouts of a person
  • stop someone from being taken abroad

It is possible to make an application for an FMPO without notifying the other party (this is known as an ‘ex-parte’ order’). To further protect the applicant, certain information usually contained in the FMPO, such as the applicant’s address must be withheld. The Ministry of Justice guidance on applying for an FMPO provides that family law solicitors should consider issues of confidentiality and withholding information at the beginning of the application process to ensure the applicant’s safety.

What is the connection between forced marriage and honour-based violence?

Honour-based violence is common in many cultures and, contrary to how it is often portrayed in the media, not confined to South East Asian communities. For example, the American South has always been more violent than the Northern states (as a general rule) and academics have linked this phenomenon to the prevalence of an ‘honour’ culture[1].

The media has always focused on honour-based killings, but only a small amount of honour-based violence involves the ending of the victim’s life. Other forms of honour-based violence include sisters and daughters being sold into slavery, mutilation, and the deprivation of freedom, education, or friendship[PM2] . And forced marriages.

Honour-based violence occurs in communities where the prevention of shame on a family overrides the value of a female’s autonomy[PM3] .

Dr Aisha K. Gill, a reader in criminology at the University of Roehampton and prominent commentator on forced marriage states:

“Honour is often equated with the regulation of women’s sexuality as measured by their conformity with social norms and traditions, especially those concerning modesty and pre-marital chastity. The oppression that women face as a result of honour systems takes different forms depending on their location, the regional culture and their family’s socio-economic status. For example, in some South Asian families, women’s participation in professional and/or academic pursuits contributes to the family’s honour; in others, a sister or daughter who works outside the home is a source of shame. Hence, gender-role expectations vary widely, ranging from the extremely patriarchal to the comparatively egalitarian”.

Is enough being done to prevent forced marriage in the UK?

Like laws surrounding domestic violence[PM4] , legislating against forced marriages does, to some extent, take the problem from outside the protection and secrecy of the family home, giving law enforcement teams and NGO advocates the foundation from which to offer protection to victims.

However, honour-based violence, including forced marriage, like all domestic abuse, is still kept hidden and some victims are never reached by the authorities. Late last year, a leading charity warned only five percent of “honour” based violence, forced marriage and female genital mutilation (FGM) is reported to the Crown Prosecution Service[PM5] .

Although progress has been made, a lot of work needs to be done to further protect victims of forced marriage and honour-based violence.

How can I end a forced marriage?

The most common way of ending a forced marriage is by annulment. For a marriage to be legal in the UK, both parties must have fully and freely consented to it. An annulment has the effect of putting you back in the position as if the marriage had never taken place. For those who do not wish to get divorced on the grounds of religious or cultural preferences, seeking to have their marriage annulled can provide an effective solution. Many people forced into marriage are economically vulnerable; therefore, it is important to know you can seek a financial settlement when applying for an annulment.

Conclusion

Forced marriage and honour-based violence are a reality in many cultures and communities. Victims need to be reassured there are procedures in place such as FMPO and domestic violence protection orders which can provide safety. However, it is clear from the number of cases being reported to the Crown Prosecution Service and the estimates of the number of unreported cases, more work needs to be done on protecting and supporting victims.

For further information or support on any points raised in this article, you can contact Karma Nirvana, a charity which supports victims of honour-based violence and forced marriage on 0800 5999 247, or visit their website on https://www.karmanirvana.org.uk/. There is also help available from https://www.refuge.org.uk/, who run a 24-hour domestic violence helpline on 0808 2000 247.

Rosie Bracher is specialist family law solicitors based in Barnstaple. Please contact our office on 01271 314 904 and arrange to speak to one of our team on any of the points raised in this article.

[1] Cohen, D., & Nisbett, R., Self Protection and the Culture of Honor: Explaining Southern Violence, (1994), Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin

[PM1]https://www.theguardian.com/society/2018/may/10/more-than-1000-cases-of-forced-marriage-in-uk-last-year-report-says

[PM2]link to http://www.sascv.org/ijcjs/aisha.pdf

[PM3]https://mediadiversified.org/2014/03/14/challenging-mistaken-assumptions-about-honour-based-violence/

[PM4]link to https://www.rosiebracher.co.uk/blog/is-domestic-violence-finally-being-taken-seriously/

[PM5]https://www.theguardian.com/society/2017/nov/07/only-5-of-honour-crimes-reported-to-police-are-referred-to-cps