Prosecuting forced marriage is satisfying – but preventing it is better still

Some women will testify in court against their parents. Most will not. 

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Crimes of violence against women have unconscionably low rates of conviction.  This appears to be particularly true of violent crimes experienced by minority women, as in the case of forced marriage and female genital mutilation. No wonder then that the first successful conviction of forced marriage in England last week, four years after it was criminalised in 2014, was universally welcomed. In a second case, a Bangladeshi couple in Leeds have been found guilty of tricking their 19 year old daughter into travelling to Bangladesh to marry her first cousin (you wait ages for one and then two come along in one week). FGM has an even worse record: it became a criminal offence in 1985 but there has never been a successful conviction despite evidence that it is taking place in the UK.

The forced marriage conviction concerned a particularly horrific case of a young woman who was forced to marry her rapist. On a visit to Pakistan in 2012 at the age of 13, she was raped by the 29-year-old nephew of her stepfather. She became pregnant, had an abortion on her return and according to her sister’s evidence, went “off the rails”. She was raped for a second time “in the back of a chip shop” and had another termination. She was placed in a children’s home and then moved on to supported accommodation. There, she re-established regular contact with her mother who “bribed” her with the promise of a mobile phone if she joined them for a family holiday to Pakistan. It was on this holiday, when she turned 18, that the mother married off her daughter to the same nephew or as the young woman herself described it, she was “sold for her passport”. The mother was found guilty on the charges of forced marriage and perjury, and received a custodial sentence of four and a half years. Although there has been one previous successful conviction of forced marriage in Wales, this was the first in the UK where the victim testified against her own parents. 

Pragna Patel, director of Southall Black Sisters (SBS), welcomed this conviction, saying: “I sincerely hope that she is receiving the necessary support and protection that she will now need to rebuild her life.” Yet, as Patel noted, there is irony in the fact that forced marriage has been successfully prosecuted at a time when government spending cuts are decimating women’s refuges and organisations supporting those most at risk. 

Many commentators have been quick to lay the blame for the low rate of convictions on the sluggishness of the criminal justice system. However, this is not the whole story, as far as forced marriage is concerned. In court, the young woman said that she did not initially report the forced marriage because her mother had threatened to curse her with black magic. She also did not want to get her mother into trouble. This reveals the huge inhibitions young people experience when it comes to taking action against their parents. This was the point made by Superintendent Sally Holmes, of West Midlands Police’s public protection unit. “Ultimately, children love their parents and the last thing they often want to do is criminalise them,” she was reported as saying in the Guardian. She also said that “the ambition is always to prevent the crime rather than to react afterwards”.

It was for precisely this reason that women’s organisations like SBS campaigned against criminalisation of forced marriage and put their energies instead into drafting The Forced Marriage (Civil Protection) Act 2007, which enabled courts to issue Forced Marriage Protection Orders (FMPOs). These can entail confiscation of passports, preventing trips abroad or requiring relatives to stop intimidation of or violence against the victim. Non-compliance with a protection order has become a criminal offence which carries a prison sentence of five years.

It is a system that appears to be working fairly well. There has been a steady increase in applications from the time the legislation was enacted. In 2017, there were 278 applications and 247 orders made. Campaigners are, quite rightly, critical of these low numbers, given that the Forced Marriage Unit handled about 1,200 inquiries in the same year. But it still means that 247 young people, the majority of whom are women, have been protected from the trauma faced by the survivor in the Birmingham case. Even in FGM cases, 109 protection orders were issued in 2017.

One of the girls who was given much-needed protection by a timely FMPO was “Hafeeza” (not her real name) of dual heritage with a Lebanese father and an English convert mother. From the age of 12, Hafeeza had been pressurised to accept various marriage proposals by a violent father and a compliant mother. She had a history of self-harming and suicide throughout her teenage years. One bone of contention was her hatred of the hijab. Her mother would call her a slut for wanting to take it off, and threatened to abandon her and her siblings with the father if she did so. They confiscated her passport so she was unable to take up a job offer or open a bank account.

When she received a suspicious call from her mother asking her to meet her alone in Acton, Hafeeza went to the police who placed her in emergency accommodation. Hafeeza’s college teacher referred her to SBS who helped her apply for an FMPO. The father was ordered to surrender not only Hafeeza’s passports but also those of her younger sisters. Despite his abusive treatment of Hafeeza, she was extremely worried that he may end up in prison and had to be reassured that that would happen only if he breached the conditions of the order.

Of course, not all cases of forced marriage can be prevented in time. To that extent, giving campaigners and the police the option of a criminal offence of forced marriage to prosecute the guilty is quite useful. But there is also a need for protection orders. Hafeeza now lives independently in a self-contained studio flat with financial support and is able to concentrate on her studies without fear of disruption. She is still in contact with her siblings who apparently saw nothing wrong with the father’s actions. However, while their passports are in the hands of the state, they too are safe. That, after all, is the end goal of all good state intervention.

Rahila Gupta is a freelance journalist, writer, activist and longstanding member of Southall Black Sisters. Her articles are published in the Guardian, New Humanist, New Internationalist, CNN and openDemocracy among other magazines, journals and websites.