Criminalising Forced Marriage Is a Start, Not an End

Buried in a law which will criminalise “nuisance and annoyance” is a measure to tackle something far less trivial: the practice of early and forced marriage.

Indeed the Antisocial Behaviour, Crime and Policing Bill, which entered the statute book last week and will most prominently replace the ‘ASBO’ with the ‘IPNA’, offers little clue in its name that parents who force their children into marriage will now do so in contravention of criminal law.

Around 10,000 cases of forced marriage take place in the UK each year. That’s 27 people each day coaxed, coerced or forced into a loveless union they did not choose. Existing legal provision requires a specific Protection Order to be requested by the victim, meaning until now there’s been no blanket protection. Instead the burden has fallen on the child to demonstrate that they are under threat.

In allowing police to pursue cases more proactively, this law is most welcome. But forced marriage is a not a UK-specific problem; to view it in the vacuum of British legislation is to virtually admit defeat in ending a practice which affects one in nine girls under 15 in the developing world. Globally, 38,000 girls are married each day. Cases in the UK in 2013 had links to 74 different countries, with South Asia particularly prominent.

Clearly then, a global problem which crosses borders and cultures won’t be solved by legislating in one jurisdiction. The extension of this law to British nationals who marry off their children overseas is therefore a wise inclusion. But nonetheless, we’d be foolish to rest on our laurels now.

If we are to end early and forced marriage, the solution lies abroad as well as at home; it lies in the village halls and classrooms of Asia and Africa more than in the chambers of the Palace of Westminster. It lies, crucially, in tackling causes, not simply changing laws.

Such work can be slow, painstaking and certainly not headline-grabbing. But if legislation is a sticking plaster – albeit a necessary one at this time – then it’s this work which will eventually mean the plasters aren’t needed.

Take Plan UK’s programme in Bangladesh, funded in part by our Girls’ Fund, where two-thirds of girls are married before 18. We’ve worked with girls to help them develop skills as peer educators: they learn their rights, and then teach each other, their families and their wider communities about the dangers and huge health risks of early marriage.

So when Jahanara* – a young woman from Northern Bangladesh who was happily pursuing her education – faced a marriage at 14, it was her friends and peers who did most to change her parents’ minds.

Economic as well as cultural pressures can lead parents to seek financial solace marrying off their daughters. This isn’t just because parents see girls as having lower earning potential, but also since the dowry payment a girl’s family have to pay to her suitor is often lower the younger she is. Getting and keeping girls in school is one of the best ways of fostering later, consensual marriage.

If we can reduce the instances of forced marriage overseas, I believe the trend will be reflected here. But it will take time: and that’s why, while we welcome the move to criminalise the practice on home turf, we must recognise that ending it is something that will happen over years, not overnight.

That said, having our own house in order is important. The higher rate of prosecutions that this new law should bring will send an important message that we take our own responsibilities seriously – and that forced marriage is unacceptable regardless of the circumstances.

It gives added legitimacy to DFID’s excellent work in this area and it means that we will approach the recently announced Girls’ Summit – where in July David Cameron and Justine Greening will lead calls for increased action on early and forced marriage and female genital mutilation – with confidence and momentum.

I promise you this: if we create a world where girls know their rights and where they receive a full course of quality education, then over time, incidence of forced marriage will decline – globally and in the UK. The right investments now mean a law passed today might not be much used in 50 or 60 years’ time. So let’s ensure that this law is a start, not an end.

*name changed

A link to the article can be found here.