The issue of forced marriage has been on my radar since I started supervising a dissertation on the topic at Blackburn College. The dissertation, which includes primary research with service providers and victims, questions the wisdom of creating a separate offence of forced marriage. This week the consultation on whether to introduce a law criminalising forced marriage ended and we now await the government's decision. You can read about this in the following BBC News report
In one respect the decision to criminalise forced marriage would be an excellent move. It would send out the message that our society does not tolerate this particularly nasty form of domestic violence, often accompanied by the worst kinds of physical, sexual and emotional abuse. Surely it must be right to protect vulnerable and isolated young women and men with the full force of the criminal law?
Those who object to a new law suggest that the move criminalises those parents who have forced their children to marry and potentially makes members of the extended family accessories to a crime. This puts children and young people subject to a forced marriage in the most terrible dilemma, facing the possibility of testifying against their parents in court. So it could be argued that a separate crime could make it even more difficult to protect individuals from harm by pushing forced marriage further under-ground It could also be argued that there are sufficient measures available to protect young people from this kind of domestic abuse, including, for example, Forced Marriage Orders, available under the Forced Marriage (Civil Protection) Act, 2007. There are laws covering domestic violence and harassment that could be used.
If we do not pass legislation are we are at risk of failing to protect individual human rights? And isn't choice about if we marry and whom we marry a basic human right? Article Sixteen of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states categorically: "Marriage shall be entered into only with the free and full consent of the intending spouses". The criminal law protects children and young people who are being sexually or physically abused. Surely It ought to protect those who are being abused through forced marriage too? Of course whether the victim reports the crime is a matter for them, but I think they ought to have that course of action open to them.
The Forced Marriage Unit (FMU) is a joint-initiative with the Home Office. In 2011 there were 1468 instances where the FMU gave advice or support related to a possible forced marriage. There were 66 instances involving those with disabilities (56 with learning disabilities, 8 with physical disabilities and 2 with both), and 10 instances involving victims who identified themselves as LGBT. Of the 1468 instances, 78 per cent were female and 22 per cent male.