British Prime Minister David Cameron recently suggested that in order to combat forced marriages, where young girls are married off against their will, he would be inclined to specifically criminalize the practice. However, one leading charity has said that blanket criminalization may be ineffective and what is in fact needed is more support for teachers who are uniquely placed to be able to intervene if they suspect a child is at risk.
Last year the British Government’s Forced Marriage Unit dealt with 1735 cases — and that number only represents the cases that the government was able to document. The figure is likely much greater if one factors in the number of women who are thought to have been at risk who have subsequently gone missing.
Indeed, a recent report on the issue suggests that there may in fact be between 5,000 to 8,000 cases of forced marriage in the U.K. every year.
The estimate is contained in the official consultation paper published on Monday on whether making forced marriage a specific criminal offence will help better protect victims.
David Cameron has already signalled that he wants to strengthen the law against forced marriage by making it a criminal offence to breach a civil forced marriage protection order, but ministers are considering going further by making it a separate criminal offence.
The home secretary, Theresa May, said: “Marriage should be one of the happiest events in a person’s life, but shockingly thousands of people a year are forced into marriage against their will.
“It is an appalling form of abuse and perceived cultural sensitivities should not stop us doing more to tackle it.”
She said the Home Office wanted to hear from victims of forced marriages and from charities and others supporting them on whether a specific new criminal offence would help or hinder.
However, charity Plan B is concerned that specific criminalization, without further action, may in fact have a chilling effect because it could discourage vulnerable girls from speaking out in case their families subsequently abandon them. There is also the issue of whether criminalization would in fact lead to more young women being taken out of the country in order to be forced into a marriage.
Writes Marie Staunton, Chief Executive of Plan UK, on the Plan UK blog:
My worry is that by simply criminalising forced marriage the government will think their job is done. Legislative activity, the criminalisation of forced marriage by itself does not result in action or prevention. How do we ensure a stronger focus on prevention — when too often the topic is deemed too sensitive to raise in schools or communities?
Prevention requires strong laws yes, but that is not enough. It requires awareness of those laws. It requires strong peer pressures from within the community and strong political leadership. This government has shown great political leadership at CHOGM where the Prime Minister pressed for a commitment by all Commonwealth countries to end early forced marriage — and got it! He needs to be backed here in the UK by the Education department, the Minister for Women, local councillors and community programmes so that no child ever again suffers a forced marriage.
Plan UK stresses that teachers can be the ones to help combat this problem, but they can only do so if they themselves are educated and supported. Right now information on this issue is displayed in schools, but this is not the same as making sure that children can freely access support, and the only way to ensure that is if teachers are confident in talking about forced marriages.
For instance, the school holidays are considered one of the most dangerous times of the year where girls are at risk of being taken abroad without the regular school routine to highlight that anything is amiss. Teachers who are able to communicate openly with children may be able to detect if children are feeling anxious about the holidays or if there is any evidence of a potential problem.
On the other side of the coin it is also important to educate and empower young people. With this synergistic approach in mind, Plan UK recently launched the video A Right to Say No as part of its ‘Because I Am A Girl’ campaign, a ten minute short film where the viewer can choose the ending of the character’s story.
The film is based on the true story of a 16 year old British girl whose family tried to force her into marriage. The associated teaching pack (Early and Forced Marriage – Lesson plan and Early and Forced Marriage – More Information) is designed to be used by Key Stage 3 and above (11+).
Ending forced marriages the world over is a cause that is being fought on many fronts, and one solution will not fit in all circumstances. To find out more about early and forced marriages around the world, please click here.