Forced Marriage not Illegal in the UK

Baroness Warsi  in, Wednesday 14 December 2011 says: “Forced marriage is inhumane, unacceptable – and not illegal in the UK”. This practice has evolved mainly with South Asian countries, such as Pakistan, Bangladesh and India.  When I was at school, my 17 year old best friend was taken to Pakistan midway through our A levels to wed her first cousin, to whom she had been bethrothed at birth. She did not return to school. She was a clever girl with a great future ahead of her but for cultural reasons she was not permitted to continue her education. Another friend at school in the same situation was allowed to go to university where she met a fellow muslim also studying medicine. She begged her parents to break off her engagement so that she might have a better life married to another first generation British Asian, rather than be saddled with her cousin from a village in Bangladesh. Her mother told her that she had to travel there to undergo the relevant ceremony, and, whilst there, she was imprisoned until she agreed to marry. She returned to England full of horror stories, and, desperate to undo what had taken place. Her family earnestly put plans in place so that her now husband could gain entry to the UK. This very brave teenager informed the Home Office of her plight and they agreed to reject the visa application, but warned her that her parents would appeal and she would have to give evidence against then at a hearing. She had three brothers, and officials told her that they had seen women in her circumstances turn up at the hearing covered in bruises and recanting their original statement.

She was successful and divorced her spouse, who never made it to the UK. Sadly she lost her love, whose parents would never let him marry a ‘divorcee’. This was all before the Forced Marriage Act of 2007, which allows a court to issue a protection order in favour of a proposed victim, when the alarm is raised by someone else. If that order is ignored, the perpetrator can go to prison for up to two years.

There are an estimated 8000 forced marriage cases a year in the UK. Why is it a civil, rather than a criminal offence in England to compel someone to marry against their will? It would all be a matter of evidence, of girls being prepared to confront their families. These cases are few and far between. In our Western society, we are outraged that a parent should choose our life partner, but in many other cultures, it is accepted that children do what they are told, whatever their age or position in life. This applies equally to men, and I have also seen sons being married off in similar circumstances. The difference is that it is acknowledged, even anticipated that they will continue with their previous lifestyle and relationships afterwards, whereas that would be scandalous for a daughter and wife.

In terms of practical advice, the Forced Marriage Unit (020 7008 0151) at the Foreign & Commonwealth office is the first port of call. If you are about to be married, take a copy of your passport, details of your flight number and find out the nearest British Embassy where you’re going. Above all, tell somebody about your predicament. If you’re worried about someone, try to give the FCO the same information and anything else you know about the person.

As more countries recognise the problem and enact legislation to deal with it, perhaps there will be greater pressure which will help to eradicate it.