8 Jun 2012

Will criminalising forced marriages push them underground?

As the government announces plans to make forced marriages a criminal offence in England, Wales and Northern Ireland, campaigners warn care will be needed to stop the issue being forced underground.

Government to criminalise forced marriage (Forced Marriage Unit)

As well as criminalising forced marriages, the government is to pledge an extra £500,000 to identify and support those affected.

Prime Minister David Cameron said the new policy was a “clear and strong message” that the practice would not be tolerated and warned parents involved that they would face jail:

“Forced marriage is abhorrent and is little more than slavery. To force anyone into marriage against their will is simply wrong and that is why we have taken decisive action to make it illegal.”

Campaigners have previously warned that a move to criminalise forced marriages risks deterring victims from coming forward.

Andrew Flanagan, the chief executive of the children’s charity NSPCC welcomed the move to fund wider prevention measures but said the change in the law would need monitoring:

“Very young girls and boys are being coerced or even forced through violence and intimidation to marry spouses sometimes twice their age. This is child abuse plain and simple .. The NSPCC has always had concerns that a specific criminal law may risk making this abuse harder to uncover because victims could be afraid of criminalising their family if they speak out.”

He added that the government must now work closely with social workers, teachers and police to make sure a new law works in the best interest of the victims.

Home Secretary Theresa May said: “It is the right of every individual to make their own choices about their relationships and their future .. But we know that legislation alone is not enough and we will continue to work across government and with frontline agencies and organisations to support and protect victims.”

The new funds for prevention work were welcomed by Aneeta Prem, who founded Freedom Charity, which runs educational projects in schools as well as a 24-hour helpline.

She told Channel 4 News: “Any resources will be a positive thing to get the message across to children and tell them what their rights are.”

Ms Prem said she was inspired to establish the Freedom Charity in 2011 by seeing “young people slipping through the net” while serving as a member of the Metropolitan Police Authority.

Currently working with secondary schools in London, Luton and Norfolk to raise awareness of forced marriage and dishonour-based violence, the charity aims to visit every school in the country, and later this summer is planning to launch a mobile phone app with practical advice about tackling forced marriages.

Ms Prem said that almost every time her charity visited a school to give an assembly, staff would have young people coming up afterwards to say they knew of a friend being forced into a marriage. Depending on the urgency of the case, such reports would then be handed on to the police, the Foreign Office or social services.

Home Office figures quoted by Freedom Charity put the number of forced marriages in the UK at between 5,000-8,000 a year, while the Foreign Office’s Forced Marriage Unit gave advice or support in 1,468 instances in 2011.

Since 2008, when the Forced Marriage Act came into force, courts have been able to issue Forced Marriage Protection Orders. These were intended to protect victims without criminalising family members and can prevent the victim from being taken abroad.