At the age of 15, I spent my time studying for my GCSEs, attending sleepovers and worrying about what dresses to wear for school friends’ birthday parties. I had my whole life ahead of me with the freedom to choose my own friendships and relationships (within reason). I have always been privileged enough to understand that I can marry at 21, at 50, or not at all, and at 15 years old, marriage was a concept that barely crossed my mind.
Unfortunately, this basic human right of having the freedom to make your own life choices is not so accessible for everyone. In some cultures, too many young women (and sometimes young men) are forced to marry against their will. This ritual is known as a ‘forced marriage’ which, by definition, is a marriage where at least one of the participants does not give their consent. These marriages are usually arranged by the bride and groom’s families, and are horrifyingly common. On the 16th of June this year, the UK Government made an attempt to tackle the forced marriage concern by putting a law in place to criminalise those involved. The new law is part of the 2014 Anti-Social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Act, and parents who force their children to marry can face a maximum of seven years in prison.
The exact numbers of forced marriages are not known due to the hidden nature of the practice. However, the human rights website PlanUK claims that one in three girls will be married off before the age of 18 in developing countries. Although forced marriages can affect both women and men, as well as people from many backgrounds and cultures, these marriages predominantly victimise young girls in South Asia, or of South Asian origin. Statistics from the Telegraph show that the majority of cases (64 percent) relate to Pakistani girls, followed by girls of Bangladeshi origin. Although the majority of victims are Muslim girls, the practice goes against the teachings of the Qur’an and Dr Muhammad Abdul Bari, the former chairman of the East London Mosque, clearly states that ‘forced marriage is not marriage according to Islam’.
To organise these rituals, young girls are often tricked or emotionally blackmailed into marrying, sometimes even sent abroad with no knowledge of the forthcoming event. Most of us know that we could simply refuse our parents if asked to marry a stranger, but the large majority of forced marriages are, unfortunately, much more complex. Refusing these marriages can result in serious consequences including physical, emotional and financial abuse, and in some cases even murder – ‘honour killings’. These girls do not have the option to refuse or rebel as this will often affect their parents’ reputation and ‘bring shame’ on their family. This greediness does not only mean the young girls are robbed of their childhood, but it often sets them up for an extremely unhappy life, as many forced marriages will involve violence and sexual abuse.
Aneeta Prem, a human rights campaigner and president of Freedom, a charity to support victims of forced marriage, stated that ‘In the most tragic cases, people forced into marriage become domestic slaves by day and sexual slaves by night’. I am shocked and sickened by every article I read, and every interview I see, and find it impossible to accept and understand why such abuse could still be a part of our society.
The introduction of the new law is a step forward in terms of broadcasting the message that this extreme and oppressive practice will not be tolerated in the UK. The intention of the law is not only to punish the abusers, but to urge victims to step forward and show that forced marriages will not be tolerated. Therefore, on paper, the law would be a huge progression in battling the issue of forced marriages. However, in reality, many victims, survivors and campaigners fear that the new law will only push the issue further underground, and even impose a negative effect.
Although there are an estimated 8000 women in the UK being forced into marriage each year, researches can only look at the statistics from marriages that have been reported. Many marriages will take place secretly, and victims will often suffer in silence. With the new law in place, there is the concern that even fewer victims will be able to speak up. They will know that their parents will be criminalised, and this may threaten them even further, leaving them all the more powerless. One of the main concerns with the enforcement of the new law is the issue that this will only encourage families to take victims overseas at an earlier age. Obviously it would be presumed that younger children would be more unaware, naive and less likely to speak out or suspect their forced marriage.
Despite the concerns, I believe that any attempt to confront the appalling crime of forced marriage, and consequential emotional trauma and suffering of young girls, is a step in the right direction. It remains to be seen what affect the new law will have, but hopefully, even if it fails in tackling the issue, it will at least bring forced marriages to the forefront of our attention.