Race Matters

Forced marriage: At the intersection of risk, identity and policy

The issue of forced marriage, a little like female genital mutilation and honour crimes, means victims of such practices can find themselves caught at the heart of political rhetoric on race, crime, immigration and gender, whilst obviously also needing a service often of life-or-death significance.

In June 2012 the Prime Minister announced that forcing someone into a marriage would become a criminal offence in England and Wales in May 2014. This decision follows a number of Home Affairs Committee Inquiries and consultations on forced marriage over the years (2005, 2008, 2011) and in particular into whether or not it should be made criminal.

The fact that there have been repeated inquiries and consultations on criminalisation reflects the very complex and powerful arguments both in favour of criminalization and against it. A gut instinct would suggest that of course forced marriage should be criminal and that it would be culturally relativist for it not to be treated this seriously. It’s a human rights abuse. It can incur a range of harms for both men and for women. It can involve intense emotional and sometimes physical pressure amounting to abuse. It can cause lasting mental health problems, it can sometimes involve physical assault, false imprisonment and kidnap. For young women, in addition, it can have serious effects on her opportunities for education, employment, financial independence and personal and social life. In addition, young women may be subjected to rape and to attacks on her right to sexual and reproductive autonomy. There is, therefore, an inherent and persuasive logic to the criminalisation of forced marriage. Other arguments in favour suggest that criminalisation may have a deterrent effect, would send out a very strong message and could empower both victims and public sector to have the confidence to challenge and resist it.

Many, but not all, women’s groups working with women victims of forced marriage, however, have argued against its criminalisation.   Their arguments principally cluster around concerns that such a measure has not been adequately thought through or factored in the practical consequences when it comes to trying to help a young person who is at risk of a forced marriage. They are concerned that parents would still do it anyway but more discreetly by taking young girls abroad to isolate them from help. They fear that girls would not seek help as they would fear getting their parents in trouble and they fear that some girls may be lulled into a false sense of security. Girls may think that because forced marriage is criminal they are safe and so would not plan an exit strategy or confront their parents putting themselves at further risk. This divergence of views results in a very clear call for Government to set in place effective monitoring and tracking of cases to identify what the practical implications of their measure will be so that they can respond accordingly.

Some other opponents of criminalising forced marriage question the motives of government for their intense focus on this issue and their eagerness to legislate. They highlight that the offences involved in bringing about a forced marriage are often already criminal (kidnap, false imprisonment, rape etc). They add that this is a measure that would have disproportionate impact on certain segments of the population who already may feel scrutinised, feared, stereotyped and marginalised. (The majority of reported cases to date have been from South Asian Communities and some African backgrounds). They also stress that many of the measures proposed to address forced marriage focus heavily on enforcement type approaches such as criminalisation or on immigration responses, like raising the age of sponsoring for marriage, increasing the probation period etc. Given that the Foreign Office itself recognizes that the motives and drivers for forced marriage are multiple, complex and varied; this concentration on immigration measures causes critics to question the Government's motives.

The political football at the heart of all this is the victims who are navigating their multiple identities of race, gender and religion and not uncommonly sexuality and disability as well. FCO statistics indicate that they may receive around 1500 phone-calls a year from a variety of sources for help with forced marriage. Between 82 and 85% of cases referred to them are female. The majority of cases recorded reflect UK demographics of settled second and third generation immigration with a heavy proportion being families originating from Pakistan, Bangladesh and India. Their youngest reported case was aged two years, their eldest 71 years. A significant proportion are young adolescents and the majority are aged between 18 and 25. Where the information was recorded, 114 cases involved victims with disabilities and 22 identified as LGBT.

Eaves for women, a charity working on all forms of violence against women and girls, received a small amount of funding from FCO which enabled us to undertake a research project.

The research aimed to identify young people’s views:

  • On forced marriage,

  • On government’s responses to it – notably criminalization,

  • On their understanding of the gendered nature of the issue,

  • On what they see as the causes and motivations for the practice and what they would like to recommend in solution.

Some of the most interesting findings of this research relate to the gender dynamics of forced marriage. There is a recognition that it is hard for boys to ask for help for this issue due to feeling embarrassed as a male to come forward as a victim when most services are targeted at women. Interestingly participants’ gut reactions showed that they were far from certain that forced marriage was different for men and for women. Similarities included that the pressure brought to bear on young people was predominantly emotional and that the mental health impact of forced marriage was very severe for both men and women. Some women showed very high empathy with male suffering seeing it as worse for men because they related to men’s sense of “masculinity”: “Men aren’t supposed to be pushed around like that.”  Whereas they showed a high tolerance and normalization of female suffering: “Women have to accept abuse as part of their lot”. However, it soon became apparent that participants could identify a more gendered pattern to the harms including rape, forced childbirth and the cessation or contraction of education, employment, financial independence and personal life for females.

They also identified that for men forced into marriage they may go through with it: “It’s an easy option to say yes”  because they could continue their education and employment and either may try for a divorce or may be able to live a personal life outside the marriage. A particularly concerning finding, however, was that 85% of survey respondents agreed with the fact that it may be hard for a man to resist a forced marriage because he himself may be expected to be an enforcer for his siblings. One young woman highlighted this by stressing that women would rarely turn to their brothers for help as their brothers were often part of the problem. This poses a major dilemma for policy makers who need both to target help at young men at risk but also to recognize and challenge the dual role of boys both as victims and perpetrators.

Another gender variation was that participants were able to recognize that parents may, albeit unconsciously, use different and specifically gendered strategies to persuade boys or girls into a marriage. They highlighted that girls may come under pressure for bringing shame and dishonour on the family and for being selfish. Parents might appeal to young men more on the basis of their role as a man, an adult, a standard setter and an enforcer: “It’s the same but what is used might be sometimes a bit different – to get men is like “You are the man of the family, you have to” – the sense of responsibility and grown up adulthood so he feels older and responsible whereas with women’s it’s “You don’t’ know how it will make us feel”. Again this suggests that more work could be helpful for men to understand how their sense of machismo is manipulated against them. More generally it was remarkable that considering these interviews and surveys drew out major gendered differentials, only one survey respondent (of 101) and one interviewee specifically framed the issue as one of gender discrimination and the two women who referenced feminism apologized for doing so!

On the issue of criminalisation many of the above arguments were rehearsed. There was 98% support for criminalisation in principle but considerable disquiet as to how it would work in practice, leading many to call for close monitoring and tracking of the actual outcomes. One interviewee in particular took issue with the criminalisation approach and contextualized this as racism and Islamophobia:  “I think that’s rubbish man – it’s just wrong – its’ just trying to make trouble for us.”  In the interviews, there was something of a gender split with young men being much more likely to oppose criminalization: “It’s a family thing, you can’t interfere” and “You’re not going to want to chat all that in public.”  The young men were also much less likely to expect or want any third party intervention. They were more likely to put the onus on the victim to resist the pressure and to feel it unfair to blame the parents if the victim just gave in: “But if it’s you that can’t stand up to the nagging and begging and guilt then is it fair to blame the parents for that?”  This may reflect something of a macho culture but it also demonstrated that young men need to be supported to realize that giving into such pressure is not weakness but natural and is a parental abuse of power that they can and should be able to ask for help against. A common finding was that while the theoretical distinction of choice and consent between forced and arranged marriage is well known, the reality of it is that young people found it extremely hard to identify where emotional pressure was “force”.

Another factor that emerged was that the culture of respect for one’s elders and the belief that they know what’s right and do the best for you is powerful and makes it difficult for young people to challenge the practice. This was particularly so with young women who were more likely to perceive their parent’s motives as benign which could be an additional factor in their susceptibility to emotional pressure. This led to some participants stressing that it is not fair or effective to place the burden of challenging such practices on the young people themselves.

We are grateful to have a chance to discuss this research with the readers of Race Card. All too often we are all in our various silos whereas in fact we have multiple facets to our identities and these can be affected by hidden or overt political agenda. The cohort for this research crossed youth, race, gender, religion and to a lesser extent disability and sexuality. Bringing our fields closer together can only enhance not just the research but the policy and practice initiatives that we advocate for in support of our service user groups.

The research is available on Eaves website www.eavesforwomen.org.uk  or with a shortcut at http://bit.ly/M37eAT.

  Share this post

Help us end racism

As an independently funded charity we rely on the support of generous individuals to continue our work.