by Michelle Brooks
The issue of criminalising forced marriage in the UK is bringing many different views to the surface and increased debate in the mainstream media. I think there should be a legal remedy, that there is not a specific one means that the law has not kept pace with our cultural evolution in the UK. Ultimately, the law is in fact supposed to keep pace, changing with the times, not remaining in stasis and worse still providing only a by proxy remedy when one part of a grossly immoral act is committed. When one is charged with kidnap, but not attempting forced marriage, it means that support services cannot where subsequent attempts are made to force marriage on siblings, bring in preventative legal measures to protect potential victims. However, forced marriage is a social process, that said, clearly the law alone cannot change it, people have to do that. Hence, the criminalisation of FM will not change the practice, (although perhaps over time convictions will produce a percentage deterrent). We must have a far wider suite of remedies through close working in communities, education in schools and higher education; bringing national scale attention to the importance of freedom to choose one’s life partners as forced marriage often also leads to divorce and instability for children.
I have like many of you, no doubt, noticed an increased level of resistance to the criminalisation of forced marriage and this has often come from those who work face to face with victims of FM, this alone should concern us as they have a greater investment in the problem than we. We must listen to what they have to say, because they have earned the right to say it and continue to earn that right on a daily basis. Concerns range from the impact of criminal proceedings on the victim, normally already the scourge of the community for resisting FM and not in a strong enough emotional state to withstand questioning by Police or case-workers. Also, though having been subjected to multiple forms of oppression at the hands of those attempting the forced marriage, they still have a strong emotionally dependent relationship with their oppressors and often do not wish them to come to any harm at the hands of the law, and this may result in more harm potentially coming to the victim. Hence we must consider that for some victims, it is not their desire to bring criminal proceedings upon their oppressors. Additionally, those providing what I will call ‘protective services ‘ (as there is no specific category for them at present) are also concerned that if there is a potential for criminal proceedings to be brought, then the victims will simply not come forward and instead become even more vulnerable and desperate, and there is no doubt in my mind given my own research that this must be avoided. Over time my work in Belonging in the UK has shown the absolute necessity of organisations providing protective services across the UK, constituting a response service that includes intimate knowledge of cultural practice among victims and their communities. For many in the UK who dare not call out the mainstream emergency services these organisations are their first responders. Often the fact that the organisation has a cultural standpoint and often is run by women means that the victim can approach the service without alerting the community or family, this is because these services also provide English classes, sewing classes and lunch clubs all of which constitute windows of opportunity that can mean the difference between life and death. That these services are under-resourced and over-worked is a matter I continue to campaign on, and I would argue, that when they rescue one British woman from a life in chains, in fact they rescue us all.
I am concerned however, that because of the current lack of legislative and policing support for protective services, there is also lack of confidence in the utility of criminalising FM, wielding potentially a heavy handed approach that ignores the much greater body of work required in communities. In this light, resisting the legal remedy may in effect be risking ‘throwing the baby out with the bath water’, I would like to argue that the proposed changes in law be accompanied by sustained consultation through the legal process with the victim and protective services who should be resourced to provide a suite of educational and health (including mental health) services to support the community. We should also be aware that the criminalisation of forced marriage, is likely to intensify the intimidation and threats already faced by the organisations at the sharp end of this problem, and any remedy should include support in personal security and training for the outreach workers.
Forced marriage is a blot on our society that affects men, women and children of all kinds, and it is important to rebut any attempts to paint a brown face on the the problem as the practice reaches across communities and cultures. Dealing with it is an on-going issue for these cross-cultural protective services who have been at work in this area for decades; hence my argument that legal constraints on forced marriage are therefore long overdue. However, so too is more serious support for the far more important societal changes we need to effect in the near future which must take the form of financial support and epistemic support from the Department for Education and the Department of Health driving change through the community-based infrastructure of protective services that is already in place but that must have governmental recognition as a sector providing response services and be themselves protected and funded thus.