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Forced marriage declared 'little more than slavery'

An announcement is to be made this week by David Cameron on whether forcing someone to marry should be outlawed amid speculation that it is to become a criminal offence carrying a maximum five-year prison sentence

Posted: 7 June 2012

image for news story Forced marriage declared 'little more than slavery'
The University of Roehampton’s Dr Aisha Gill comments on the Government’s announcement to create stand-alone law to address forced marriage.

The University of Roehampton’s Dr Aisha Gill has commented on the Government’s announcement to create stand-alone law to address forced marriage in England, Wales and Northern Ireland.

An announcement is to be made this week by David Cameron on whether forcing someone to marry should be outlawed amid speculation that it is to become a criminal offence carrying a maximum five-year prison sentence. The prime minister said last year that he wanted to see forced marriage made a criminal offence in its own right describing it as "little more than slavery" and "completely wrong".

Dr Gill said it was a shared view that forced married constituted an appalling violation of an individual’s fundamental human rights, and was supportive of proposals to criminalise any breaches of the civil protection orders to bring this area of law in line with the law relating to domestic violence where breaches of civil non-molestation orders are treated as criminal offences. She welcomed the introduction of forced marriage as an aggravating feature in sentencing of criminal offences.

"Proponents of criminalisation in the voluntary women's sector are very much in the minority. This vocal minority maintains that existing laws are inadequate for addressing forced marriage and that criminalisation would strengthen the ability to tackle the issue effectively," said Dr Gill.

However well-intentioned, Dr Gill said any new legislation may prove to achieve a ‘quick fix’ rather than an effective solution to this complicated, long-standing problem. Frontline organisations working with BME women are concerned that it may deter future victims from reporting the problem and seeking help and thus prove to be counter-productive.

"The primary purpose of any legislation in respect of forced marriage must be to protect victims. Many victims are reluctant to report their experiences to the authorities for fear that their family will face criminal sanctions. Victims often need to be reassured that the protection they seek can be obtained in the family courts, and, thus, that their families will not be prosecuted, before they will agree to make a formal statement," she said.

Dr Gill's comments follow her research into the matter, a survey in which the majority of respondents (57%) believed that criminalisation would make it more difficult for victims to come forward.

"It is already very difficult for vulnerable young people and in particular women to seek support help and advice in this situation. The fact that their family may be criminalised and face charges will be a step backwards as they will be even more reluctant to come forward,” she said.

"This would not be possible if plans to criminalise forced marriage go ahead. The creation of a specific criminal offence will prevent victims from coming forward to obtain essential assistance and will directly impact upon their access to justice as they will be unlikely to invoke existing civil remedies. The higher standard of proof in the criminal courts will have a significant effect upon the rate of effective and successful prosecutions in forced marriage cases."

The recent creation of the Forced Marriage (Civil Protection) Act 2007 within existing domestic violence legislation in England and Wales was a positive development: the increasing number of applications for Forced Marriage Protection Orders (far exceeding the numbers anticipated), is a strong indication that the legislation is effective.

The Government’s energies and resources should be directed at reviewing how the current legislation is working and increasing the effectiveness of existing civil responses, before adopting new legislation that may make it harder to protect victims and prosecute perpetrators. If there is money available in these times of austerity, we are of the view that this would be better spent on the initiatives outlined above and in funding the support services which are essential to a victim being able to access justice in the first place and which are central to victims overcoming the multiple traumas they experience as a result of being threatened or forced into marriage. A programme of education within communities would also be effective in addressing the issue.

While the creation of a specific offence in respect of forced marriage would have significant symbolic value, any deterrent effect on perpetrators would likely be offset by the fact that victims may well be deterred from seeking help for fear of family members being prosecuted in the criminal courts. In practice, it is doubtful that criminalisation would offer victims a genuine choice in how they wish for their case to be treated. Thus, on balance, the proposed legislation is likely to have few positive effects and may well negatively impact on efforts both to combat the issue of FM and to help individual victims.

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