She calls it a “life term” — her marriage. Though divorced now, 31-year-old Shazia (name changed), a British woman born to Pakistani parents, endured nine years of being in a relationship of marital discord that included continuous physical abuse and rape. “There was no compatibility, not even a common language to communicate with,” she says.

Shazia's story is a typical one. One summer, 14 years ago, she was visiting her ancestral village in Chakwal in the Punjab. “It just happened so suddenly. I had the shock of my life when a week after I arrived I was married off to my first cousin. I think my father was under pressure by his family to marry me off,” she states, completely absolving her father, a taxi driver in London, of the act.

Why couldn't she have said no?

“I was only a child, just 17, in a completely alien environment. I was scared that if I refused, I'd be beaten up,” says Shazia.

Six months later Shazia returned to the UK as a young bride, yet another victim of forced marriage, accompanied by her husband who is now a British citizen.

This may have happened over a decade ago, but similar episodes are happening even today because forced marriage is not illegal in the UK. So much so that the UK government's Foreign and Commonwealth Office in collaboration with the Home Office has set up a Forced Marriage Unit (FMU) to provide support and advice to those at risk.

The concern also led to enactment of the Forced Marriage (Civil Protection) Act 2007, which provides a specific civil remedy called a Forced Marriage Protection Order (FMPO) to victims threatened or forced into marriage from their families. But breaches to the order often take place.

In 2011 the unit recorded 1,468 instances of forced marriage, 78 per cent of which were females. Of these, over 70 per cent cases involve families from Pakistani, Indian and Bengali background. Experts, however, say the FMU’s figures are just the tip of the iceberg and do not reflect the full scale of the abuse as most cases go unreported. The UK government estimates that 5,000-8,000 cases of forced marriage take place in the UK every year.

Until two decades ago, the British government was reluctant to interfere in what it viewed as ‘family’ matter. In 1999, after relentless campaigning by women groups and when several horrific cases of forced marriages were highlighted in the British media, it was dealt with more seriously. Over the years, several public consultations have taken place organised by the Home Office and many whorls of forced marriage have been unfurled including when an arranged marriage becomes a forced one, and when persuasion becomes coercion. But while it has been termed a civil offence, it always falls short of becoming a criminal offence after every debate.

Some of the reasons that trigger parents to force their daughters to marry may include strengthening family ties, protecting cultural traditions, preventing unsuitable marriages (outside their ethnic or religious group), protecting family honour, etc. At times parents are pressured by the extended family and community, points out Karma Nirvana, a national charity, founded in 1993. It was among the organisations that were invited to be part of the government’s recent forced marriage consultation.

Activist and advocate for women’s rights, Jasvinder Sanghera, who fled home to avoid being forced into marriage at 16, and who went on to set up Karma Nirvana says that she supports criminalisation. Her organisation reached out to cross-sections of 134 multi-agency practitioners including the police, social workers, lawyers, health professionals and ordinary people to get as many views as possible. It also undertook a national ‘postcard consultation’ and obtained 2,512 views from people across England and Wales regarding criminalisation of forced marriage.

“The evidence is damning! I think we are not having an honest debate as the white professionals working in the field are uncomfortable about terming it a race issue and offending the ethnic minorities. Thus, fearing repercussions, they are turning a blind eye to the issue. The perpetrators are profiting from it by giving a cultural colour to it when it is plain abuse,” says Sanghera adding that, “by not hitting hard at the perpetrators, the government had absolved itself of its responsibility of safeguarding the rights of women”.

While criminal offences associated with forced marriages are committed (including abduction, rape, murder etc.), those in favour of criminalising the offence argue that the Forced Marriage Civil Protection Act 2007 (FMCPA 2007) does not cover emotional coercion, persuasion, manipulation and pressure which many women experience and which can be extremely damaging psychologically.

“The amount of pressure put on women often leads to their capitulation,” said Chalotte Racheal Proudman, a barrister. “It would work as a public message that forced marriage is socially unacceptable,” she says, adding, “Criminalisation would also have a strong deterrent effect, thus changing the behaviour of South Asian communities, with key perpetrators fearing prosecution.”

Interestingly, the resistance to criminalisation is coming from quarters providing protective services and those working the closest with the victims of forced marriage. They say it will deter many from seeking help, having already to bear the brunt of resisting forced marriage. “Those forced into marriage don’t hate their parents or families, they hate what they do to them,” says Ranjit Bilkhu, director of Jeena International, another UK-based charity. “The law on criminalisation is adequate, if properly applied, as it stands today,” she concluded.

“Most victims continue to want a relationship with their oppressors and do not wish them any harm or want them prosecuted. If criminal charges are slapped on parents and they are put behind bars, victims worry about the fate of younger siblings,” said Barrister Ayesha Hasan, who does not support criminalisation.

This is corroborated by a recent survey conducted by the Ashiana Network, which provides refuge to forced marriage victims.

It asked 20 residents their views about criminalising the offence. Seven said it will help raise awareness within the affected communities and deter families from engaging in the practice. But 19 said if forced marriage was a criminal offence they would not have gone to the authorities because they would not want to see their parents being prosecuted in a criminal court or imprisoned.

Henna Foundation, a charity working with victims of forced marriage and honour-based violence, also has strong reservations and concerns about criminalisation. It believes that this tool will not prove effective against forced marriage just like criminalising female genital mutilation did not and will only force the problem underground and lower the levels of reporting.

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