Although forced marriage has been a significant part of our work from the very beginning, interest in and awareness of the issue in the media and government circles was sparked off by the tragic case of Rukshana Naz, a 19-year-old Asian woman, who was murdered in Derby in 1998. Her brother strangled her while her mother held her down by her feet. Her mother said, ‘it was written in her kismet’.
In August 1999, the Home Office established a Working Group to examine and report on the issue of forced marriage. Southall Black Sisters along with a number of other groups and individuals was invited to join the group. We organised a meeting of survivors of forced marriage to ensure that the voices of women were properly reflected in the Working Group, and we mobilised 35 predominantly Asian and minority women’s groups and refuges in support of our recommendations to the Group.
However, SBS was compelled to resign from the Working Group when the Group insisted on offering mediation and reconciliation as options to women were at risk of forced marriage. We argued that women usually come to organisations like ours as a last resort, having almost always attempted reconciliation through traditional community mechanisms involving meetings with family elders, relatives and community leaders. We argued that a woman’s safety is paramount and that her safety could not be monitored or guaranteed when she was reconciled into the home. We produced our own report on Forced Marriage one year after the Working Group’s own report, A Choice by Right to assess whether the recommendations made by the Home Office Working Group were making an impact.
We were especially concerned by the reluctance of statutory agencies to intervene because forced marriage was seen as a cultural practice to be tolerated rather than challenged. We campaigned to gain widespread acceptance of the view that it is not racist not to intervene to protect a young person from forced marriage and that forced marriage is an abuse of their human right to choice in marriage. We argued that all women should expect and be afforded state protection against violence, including forced marriage.
Since 2000, we have made extensive recommendations to the Home Office, the Police, the Foreign and Consular Service, Social services, Schools and Health Authorities on good practice when dealing with women and girls who are at risk of forced marriage and/or abduction.
In January 2005 the HO and the FCO established a new joint Forced Marriage Unit (FMU). The Unit’s remit is to provide confidential support and information for all potential victims and concerned professionals
In 2009, the Forced marriage Unit (FMU) published a comprehensive set of guidelines aimed at institutionalising good practice in all agencies that come into contact with forced marriage cases.
As a result of our intervention, the Foreign Office (FO) has also taken some positive steps when investigating and supporting women who have been abducted abroad for the purposes of forced marriage although the service is still patchy. It would appear that the FO has taken on board the fact that even where a person is a dual national (because the country of her parents’ origin may have conferred dual citizenship automatically), the FO has a duty of care to such persons.
Our most recent demand is that forced marriage should be dealt with as part of the national strategy on domestic violence for a number of reasons: to avoid marginalisation of the issue; to ensure that it is perceived as a gender-related violence issue rather than as a ‘cultural practice’ and to ensure that it is addressed within an overall human rights framework on protection
Forced Marriage Law
In 2005, the FMU published a consultation paper, ‘Forced Marriage: A Wrong not a Right’, on the advisability of making forced marriage a criminal offence. Whilst SBS is sympathetic to this demand, we opposed this move because we felt that, on balance, a new criminal offence would not serve the main objective of protecting women and girls from forced marriage. Instead, we argued that it was very likely to drive the problem underground. On a more pragmatic note, we argued that our experience showed us that the overwhelming majority of our service users, while wanting to escape a forced marriage, did not wish to criminalise their parents and family members and would not come forward if they felt that this would be the end result of their complaint. We strongly felt that a more effective solution lay in providing properly resourced specialist services to meet emergency and long-term support. The SBS position was outlined in our submission: ‘Forced Marriage: A Criminal Offence?’ We consulted widely with the BAMER sector and 37 organisations supported our proposals in their entirety. As there was little support for this proposal, the government decided not to proceed.
Towards the end of 2011, the Coalition Government introduced yet another consultation paper on the criminalisation of forced marriage. The consultation closes at the end of March 2012. SBS will be responding accordingly.
In 2006, SBS collaborated with Lord Lester, the Liberal Democrat peer to introduce a Private Member’s Bill on forced marriage to offer those subjected to forced marriage additional protection through the civil courts by way of an injunction to prevent the marriage from taking place. SBS felt that such legislation would have an important deterrent effect without running the risk of driving the problem underground. The Government embraced this legislation and introduced the Forced marriage (Civil Protection) Act 2007 which came into force in 2008. Under the Act, the courts have the power to make Forced Marriage Protection Orders to stop someone from forcing another person into marriage. Our experience since its introduction shows that it is a vital component in the protection that is available for persons at risk of forced marriage.
Forced Marriage and Immigration Law
In December 2007, the UK Border Agency (UKBA) published a consultation paper entitled Marriage to Partners From Overseas concerning the use of the immigration rules to prevent forced marriage. Its central proposal was to raise the marriageable age of overseas spouses and their sponsors from 18 to 21. The overarching aim was to prevent marriage from being used as a migration route into Britain. SBS opposed the proposal on the grounds that it was discriminatory and disproportionate. We argued that there is no evidence to show that raising the age of marriage will prevent a forced marriage and that entry to the UK is not the main motivating factor for a forced marriage. Reasons for forced marriage are multiple and complex and concern the need to maintain control especially over female sexuality and parents intent on forcing young girls into marriage, will find ways around this rule. Despite widespread opposition to the plans (only one in six agreed that the increase in age limit would help to address the issue), the Home Office introduced the change anyway.
This change was subsequently legally challenged by two couples who had entered into genuine marriages but who were caught by the rule which meant that they were forced to live apart or together but in exile.
In 2011, in the Quila and Bibi cases in which SBS intervened as an interested party, the Supreme Court ruled that the Government’s policy on the age limit of 21 for marriage to overseas spouses was a disproportionate response to the problem of forced marriage since it prevented genuine couples from living together and therefore constituted a breach of their Human Rights.
For the full judgment see: