Updated: Wednesday, 20th November 2019 @ 3:28pm

Forced marriages continue to rise in the UK, despite efforts to combat them

Forced marriages continue to rise in the UK, despite efforts to combat them

By Mihaela Ivantcheva

Despite efforts to combat them, the number of reports of forced marriages is continuing to rise in the UK.

In 2009, the Forced Marriage Unit, a joint-initiative between the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and the Home Office, reported 1,682 cases of possible forced marriages.

In 2010, this this number rose to 1,735.

Greater Manchester Police says that 300 cases of forced marriages are reported every year with most of victims young women and girls between 13 and 30 years old.

There have been a number of efforts by the government to address the problem. In 2007, the Forced Marriage Act was introduced to protect individuals from being forced to marry without their free and full consent.

In November 2008, the then-Labour government set out to combat forced marriages by increasing the age of spouse sponsorship from 18 to 21 as part of its immigration rules. The highly contentious rule, considered by some as a tool against immigration rather than forced marriages, banned non-EU spouses aged under 21 from entering Britain.

However, the efforts of the government failed its first major test with a Supreme Court ruling from last month.

The highest court in land found that banning non-EU spouses aged between 18 and 21 from entering the UK is ‘arbitrary and disruptive’ which, it said, breached Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights that protects the right to family and private life.

These developments raise a number of legitimate questions such as what are the root causes of the problem, what is the best instrument for combating forced marriages and how effective is the Forced Marriage Act when it actually comes to protecting victims?

Dr Khatidja Chantler, lecturer in Social Work at the University of Manchester, has been working on issues of violence against women, particularly in minority communities, for a number of years.

“The 2007 Act has served to protect some victims, but agencies that come into contact with people who are in the process of being forced, need to increase their confidence in making full use of this existing legislation,” Dr Chantler said.

In 2006, Dr Chantler was part of a research team that examined the risks and benefits associated with the government’s controversial proposal to increase the age of sponsorship and marriage of British citizens to non-EU citizens from 18 years to 21 years.

The research included interviews with 38 survivors of forced marriage from communities across Manchester, Birmingham and Tower Hamlets in London.

According to Dr Chantler, there is no exact data available on the prevalence of forced marriage in Manchester.

However, estimates suggest that nationwide there are between 5,000 and 8,000 cases of forced marriages a year.

Although forced marriages are mainly associated with South Asian communities, Dr Chantler stresses that they are not solely limited to those demographics.

She said: “These communities are the largest minority ethnic group in the UK and so are likely to generate the highest number of forced marriage cases.”

The factors that increase the risk of forced marriages are as complex and multi-layered as the problem itself – from unequal gender relations, cultural preferences for earlier marriages as a way of controlling sexualities, to poverty and immigration policy.

“The latter is important, as marriage is one of the only remaining options for permanent settlement in the UK for non-EU nationals,” explains Dr Chantler.

According to Dr Chantler, the best way to combat forced marriages is raising awareness and understanding of the root causes and nature of forced marriage as well as providing training for statutory workers.

“In Manchester, there needs to be recognition by health and social care professionals of the seriousness of forced marriage, which needs to be seen as a form of gender-based violence,” she said.

Community-based interventions, including education and discussion groups for young people as well as older generations in minority communities, may also be helpful.

Empowering and protecting victims to speak up is another way of tackling the problem in the long term. According to Sarah Thompson, solicitor and family law mediator at Russell Jones & Walker Solicitors in Manchester, the Forced Marriage Act provides sufficient protection for victims if they are ready to speak up. “People don’t speak out, they are frightened. We don’t know how many are silently suffering out there,” she said.

The most difficult part from a law perspective is to prove coercion.

“Coercion is very hard to prove. It is like proving a conspiracy theory,” explains Mrs Thompson.

In her opinion, criminalising forced marriages can also be a step in the right direction.

Understanding the nature of the problem is the first step to solving the problem.

“Forced marriage cannot be seen solely as a cultural practice, but one that includes previous family histories, economic, religious and structural factors. The accounts of the participants do not fit neatly into one box and we would be doing them a disservice if we understood forced marriage as a purely ‘cultural’ issue,” Dr Chantler said.

Apart from the Forced Marriage Unit, there are a number of support agencies for victims of forced marriages. For more information, visit the Greater Manchester Police website by clicking here.