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16 June 2015

Britain’s first forced marriage sentence: a lot more still to do

This month’s forced marriage sentencing was a great step forward, but why is it the only one?

By Emily Dyer

Last week, the British courts handed down its first ever sentence to a perpetrator of forced marriage. The perpetrator – a 34-year-old businessman from Cardiff – raped and imprisoned a woman, before forcing her to marry. It was just a year ago today that forced marriage became a crime in the United Kingdom.

What does this sentencing mean? Well, first and foremost, it will be a huge relief for the survivor, a young woman who had reportedly been dragged through the long and tortuous process of the defendant flip-flopping on his plea. This is all we can know about the case without putting the survivor at risk.

This unknown woman can now begin to try to put her life back together. Yet, she is the only one of an unknown number of victims living in this country to have been brought justice, those whose families – those who are supposed to support and love them no matter what – would often sooner see dead over shaming the family.

Due to the very nature of this vastly underreported crime, there is no way of knowing how many people go through the turmoil of forced marriage and subsequent marital rape each year. But it is in the thousands. In 2013, the government’s Forced Marriage Unit gave support or advice related to a possible forced marriage to more than 1,300 people.

This conviction was the result of several stars aligning. The first was that the victim felt she could talk to her family about what she was being put through by her perpetrator, and they had the confidence to report it the police.

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Sadly, this is not always the case. Many survivors I have met grew up believing the ‘honour’ system they had been brought up in was normal. Going against that system – from wearing ‘Westernised’ clothes, to refusing to marry their promised stranger, to leaving home – is often viewed as shameful, not only by the perpetrators but by the victims themselves. As a result, many have claimed to feel like the perpetrator rather than the victim, someone who is hurting the people they love – their family – through shaming them in the eyes of the community.

Going to the police to ask for help is therefore seen as just another layer of betrayal, often by all parties involved. Last year’s criminalisation of forced marriage therefore enables victims to redirect the blame away from themselves to be able to say “what you are doing is illegal” to the perpetrator. It will also hopefully give families the confidence to stand up to the wider community and say “we don’t want to go to prison”.

Secondly, the South Wales police who handled the case had previously signed up to training by Karma Nirvana, a charity run by forced marriage survivor Jasvinder Sanghera and the driving force behind an attempt to change this lack of awareness among all professionals who regularly come into contract with victims. According to one of the officers involved in the case, PC Leane Caddick, Karma Nirvana’s forced marriage training and specialist risk assessment enabled her to “identify incidents and victims of forced marriage, [and] understand the barriers faced by victims, as well as how to respond, investigate and handle cases, conduct risk assessments and safeguard victims”.

However, not all police forces have been as proactive in engaging with Karma Nirvana, despite the group’s repeated attempts. According to staff member Natasha Rattu, “we really want to get into West Yorkshire because Leeds and Bradford are consistently among our top five calling areas. From West Yorkshire we do get calls from victims that haven’t had fantastic responses”.

Sara (whose real name cannot be revealed for her own security) from Bradford, West Yorkshire, was one of many to have been let down by untrained police officers. After initially ringing 999, her initial call was not followed up on, and she “went back into this hole of accepting that help would never come”, until a year later when she found the courage to police to ask for help for a second time. A police officer assumed the male friend she was with was a boyfriend. After being referred to a refuge, the police did not make contact with her again: “there was no welfare check made to see if I was ok. Until this day I’ve never been followed up on which is a shame really as the police have powers which could make the difference between freedom and being oppressed”. I have heard testimony after testimony of others being told to go home and try and make things work with those who are perpetrating the abuse. PC Caddick from South Wales adds that “untrained officers are fearful of upsetting communities by asking questions about culture and religion”.

While the law criminalising forced marriage is an important step, it is the first of many down a long road in tackling forced marriage. In order for more convictions to happen, all professionals who come into contact with potential victims and survivors need to be able to identify ‘honour’-based abuse and know how to deal with it appropriately. It is also time that we have an honest conversation about what one conviction means in the backdrop of over 1,300 reports to a government department. These steps forward cannot happen without groups like Karma Nirvana, who are experts in supporting victims and empowering survivors to gain the independence they have previously been denied. 

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