Stop accepting the unacceptable
Forced marriage is a hidden epidemic in the UK with an estimated 5,000 to 8,000 forced marriages every year. Around 41 per cent of victims are under 18 years old. The figures are vague because often, the first time concerns will be raised about a possible case of forced marriage is when a girl fails to return to school after the summer holidays.
The problem is difficult to detect and can suffer from the obscuring haze of misplaced cultural sensitivities deterring key adults, like teachers or health workers, from recognising or raising the problem. These public servants are also not always seen as the best place to turn – 63 per cent of people reporting cases of forced marriage to the National Honour Helpline run by the charity Karma Nirvana had not reported their problem to the police, teachers, doctors or the government’s Forced Marriage Unit.
In our latest report Ending Forced Marriage, Demos recommends compulsory training for key public sector workers to help break down some of the invisible barriers that delay effective detection of girls at risk of being coerced into marriage.
But the strategy can’t end there. The successful steps taken by the Government to finally outlaw the practice must supported by wider preventative measures. Prosecution sends a strong message, but for the thousands of girls who leave British soil each year, it will be too late.
Demos calls for the FMU to be comprised not only of the Home Office and the Foreign & Commonwealth Office but also the Department for International Development. The FMU stands out as a beacon of cross-departmental working but it is missing the crucial lessons that DfID – in its role supporting education overseas (a key preventative factor in forced marriages) and working in communities that receive girls from the UK intended for forced marriage – could bring to the body. The international dimension of this issue requires a cross-border response and the UK must be joined-up in our approach, linking education overseas with education in British communities and training for key workers likely to encounter the problem.
The strategy is working. Combining the efforts of the FMU with education support materials from the Department for Education and charities like Plan UK who develop materials for use in the UK and work with the women and girls who are affected overseas is having a measurable impact. There are an increasing number of men – often school friends or brothers – reporting coercion, for example, showing a broader awareness and rejection of the practice.
But we must not be complacent. The authors warn that recession could contribute to a rise in instances of forced marriage – a trend often witnessed overseas according to Plan UK. Either one less mouth to feed or the prospect of a dowry tempt families to force what in more a prosperous context would have been merely encourage. In the end, criminalisation is necessary but insufficient if we are to achieve the Prime Minister’s ambition of ending forced marriage in the UK.