Updated: Tuesday, 21st November 2017 @ 8:07am

‘It’s a shambles’: Forced marriage victim warns about David Cameron’s plans to criminalise the practice

‘It’s a shambles’: Forced marriage victim warns about David Cameron’s plans to criminalise the practice

By Mihaela Ivantcheva

A forced marriage victim and author of Belonging, Sameem Ali, is raising the red flag about possible adverse effects of the government plans to criminalise forced marriage in England and Wales.

With the number of reported forced marriages increasing across the UK and more victims seeking help and government protection, an alarm bell is ringing at Number 10.

In an announcement last week, PM David Cameron and Home Secretary Theresa May vowed to criminalise the controversial practice.

Speaking to MM, author of Belonging and councillor for Moss Side Sameem Ali said: “I was forced into a marriage at the age of 13 and I only escaped that marriage knowing that I don’t have to put a finger on my parents.

“Criminalising is going to drive the victims underground. Victims are going to feel guilty about prosecuting their parents.”

Under the proposed legislation, that is expected to be put before Parliament after 2013, forced marriage will become a criminal offence and parents who coerce their children into marrying might face the prospect of a prison sentence.

“Forced marriage is abhorrent and little more than slavery. To force anyone into marriage against their will is simply wrong and that is why we have taken decisive action to make it illegal,” said Cameron.

Greater Manchester Police report 300 cases of forced marriages every year with most of the victims being young women and girls between 13 and 30 years old.

However Mrs Ali believes that rising numbers are a good sign and an indication that victims are starting to feel safe and confident, and are speaking out.

“Criminalising will only drive the practice underground. All the good work that people have done will be washed away in an instant.

“The numbers may go down because the victims are not coming forward any more, because no young person wants to say ‘arrest mummy and daddy’ because it is mummy and daddy who force the young person into marriage in the first place,” she said.

The 42-year-old said that different aspects of forced marriage such as child abuse, harassment, domestic violence and grievous bodily harm are already a criminal offence and she is confident that Forced Marriage Protection Orders works effectively.

“Victims have the choice now whether they want to prosecute their parents, and no victim has felt the need to. By forcing this law upon them, they are not only going to be forced into marriage but they are also going to be forced to come into court and give evidence against their parents. It is a shambles,” Mrs Ali said.

Raised in a children’s home in the first seven years of her life, she was taken back to her family home to suffer physical and mental abuse.

She was forced to marry in Pakistan at the age of 13 to a man she did not know, and gave birth to a boy aged just 14.

Mrs Ali shares her story in her memoir Belonging, which has become an inspiration for many victims.

“I was strong enough to pick up my baby, who was then three, and leave. I did not want any harm done to my mother or to my brother who forced me into this marriage.

I just wanted them to leave me alone,” said Mrs Ali.

She was prompted to write the book by the increasing number of stories about ‘honour killings’ emerging in the media.

“That sent a clear message to the young people to say ‘don’t you dare speak up because we will find you and kill you’.

“I have escaped and I am doing all right. We need the opposite message to say you can escape and you can have a life after abuse and you can have a life after forced marriage,” the author said.

Mrs Ali believes that criminalising forced marriage will silence victims and confuse young people about their culture as well as create huge rifts not only within families but also within communities.

“The practice of forced marriage is deeply rooted and change has to come from within. Awareness needs to come at the root of this cause and young people can create that change, young people can educate their parents,” she added.

Figures show that the people who sought help from the Forced Marriage Unit are mainly from Pakistan, India and Bangladesh.

However, research reveals that forced marriage happens in the Irish travelling community and some African, Chinese and Somali communities.  

“It is not about creating a mechanism when the young people start to disrespect their culture. Young people need to be educated about the wrong elements of their culture.

“But there are also great elements of our culture and we need to start balancing it out.

“Forced marriage does not happen overnight. There is a certain element of controlling behaviour within that family already.

“Once that child becomes adolescent and starts answering back, this is then a way to curb their behaviour – whether it be their sexual behaviour or their adolescent behaviour.

“The best thing that I have learnt after all of this is don’t lose yourself, stand up to who you want to be and what you do.

“I know it might go against what your family believes in but sometimes that is the only way you can teach them that what they are doing is wrong.

“Young people have to be the catalyst in all this, they have to stand up and educate their parents about forced marriage. It is not about criminalising their parents.”

Mrs Ali is determined to actively campaign against the proposed law and to encourage members of the affected communities to speak up.