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“The legal status, condition, or relationship that results from a contract by which one man and one woman, who have the capacity to enter into such an agreement, mutually promise to live together in the relationship of Husband and wife in law for life, or until the legal termination of the relationship.”
(Bouvier J, nd)
In British culture, marriage is considered a union of two individuals who wish to commit to one another for the rest of their lives and take their relationship to the next level. Forced marriage is a controversial type of matrimony, which exists in the United Kingdom today, the United Kingdom, has an extremely multicultural society where modern and traditional beliefs often collide, especially between different generations that have different ideas and ideals. Forced marriage is conducted without the full consent of one or both parties and is common in the Middle East and in some parts of Asia and Africa (Smith, 2006). In order to understand why forced marriages take place, it is important to be aware of what values drive people to force their child into a marriage.
Many young men and women suffer in silence and it may seem outlandish to some that this custom, which is considered inhumane by most people in the United Kingdom, is allowed to continue within modern British society today. This piece will describe forced marriage and the reasons why it takes place, it will also discuss some of the laws and protection offered to people affected by forced marriage.
Forced marriages occur in a number of minority communities within the United Kingdom (UK) and often involve the forced spouse being sent abroad to get married or being forced to marry within the UK. Although this form of marriage is accepted and popular within some cultures, the concept of forced marriage is not favoured in the United Kingdom (Smith 2006). In 2009 the Forced Marriage Unit gave advice or support to 1682 cases of forced marriage, 86 percent involved females and 14 percent involved males. There were also many more cases that went unreported (Foreign and Commonwealth Office, 2009).
One particular reason why the majority of people disagree with the act of forced marriage is because it is recognized as an abuse of human rights and also a form of domestic violence. The victims of forced marriages, who are often young women, may experience abduction, imprisonment, sexual abuse, physical and mental abuse and sometimes even murder. Forced marriages are not supported by any of the major religions within the United Kingdom. Whilst opinions on the nature of marriage may differ between the different religions, they all agree that some level of consent is necessary. Families may put pressure on a victim, or even use emotional blackmail, to make the victim believe that if they do not agree to the forced marriage then they are going against their religion, this is untrue.
It is important to make clear that forced marriages are different than arranged marriages. Although arranged marriage involves parents choosing a partner they deem suitable for their child, the marriage is only organised by parents or family members once both of the marrying parties have consented. Arranged marriage is a tradition that has worked effectively within many communities for a very long time. However, forced marriages may sometimes be mistaken for arranged marriage as one or both of the parties may feel as though they have no choice but to consent due to the pressure put onto them from their family.
Emotional blackmail is very common within the lead up to a forced marriage and families may tell the victim that they will bring shame to the family if they do not go ahead with the arrangements. The victim’s family may threaten to disown and reject the victim and leave them homeless if they go against their family’s wishes. If a victim decides not to go ahead with the forced marriage they may be taken prisoner in their own home and those who are still in school may be taken out and miss vital education as their family fears they may tell somebody who can help them to escape the situation and run away from the marriage.
Forced marriage may be a parent’s way of sustaining a cultural tradition. Culture and tradition are important aspects in people’s lives, as they are a strong foundation of one’s faith and beliefs. Some cultures believe their family can only be respected if their children marry within certain families. Arrangements are made for their child to marry the person of the parents or elders choice and the child has no say. Parents may find themselves under pressure from extended family to marry off their children and in some cases the decision of who their child will marry is made in infancy. Much of the time a victim of a forced marriage will never have met or even spoken to their husband before they are married.
In some cultures, marriage is considered a fusion of two families, not merely the joining of two individuals, that is why bloodlines and reputations matter. Love is expected to come after the marriage in the case of a forced marriage, and it is believed by some that the mystery of one’s partner keeps the relationship interesting and long lasting. In a forced marriage, the pressure from the society in which the couple live and from the two families involved often keeps the marriage together whether or not it is a successful union. Divorce is very often not an option when there is so much pressure for a person to stay in a marriage (Sabreen, 2005).
Violence is often used against the victim of a forced marriage and in the very worst cases victims are murdered in what are sometimes referred to as ‘honour killings’. ‘Honour killings’ are murders by families of those who are believed to have brought shame upon the family name. This ‘shame’ could be down to a person refusing to enter into a forced marriage or having a relationship with somebody that the family do not approve of.
A recent example of an ‘honour’ crime committed in the United Kingdom was the murder of Banaz Mahmod who was just twenty years old at the time of her murder. Her body was discovered inside of a suitcase buried in a Birmingham garden in April 2006. Banaz was one of five daughters from a strict Kurdish family and after entering into an arranged marriage at the age of sixteen, she was expected to fulfil the role of doting wife and mother. Aged nineteen, Banaz fell in love with another man and it is this that led her father, uncle and other family friends to kill her. These were the people she should have been able to turn to and trust in times of need. Banaz’s crime was dishonouring her father by leaving her unhappy marriage and falling in love with another man from a different Kurdish clan. The police had already been warned by Banaz that her life was in danger on four separate occasions before she vanished, and she had included in a letter, the names of some of those involved in her death (BBC News, 2007).
It is often believed in the UK that marriages made from love offer more independence and freedom when compared to forced marriages. Those involved in a forced marriage experience pressure to meet the expectations of their parents. One of the main arguments against a forced marriage is how can a person be expected to marry somebody that they do not know. Two people knowing each other before marriage allows partners to have respect and an understanding for each other’s needs and wants. In a traditional British marriage, those getting wed are the primary decision makers and parents and other family members are there merely to support the couple. It is down to the people getting married whether the marriage will be successful or not. Parents and other family members’ opinions may still be important but it is the individuals getting married that are the ones who should be taken into consideration.
Forced marriages are extremely likely to have severe psychological, emotional, medical, legal and financial consequences. Victims are often isolated from friends and peers and rarely have access to the services that could assist them; this makes it increasingly difficult to escape the marriage. Forced marriages may become violent as the relationship is often based on the power of one spouse. Rape occurs frequently within forced marriage and apart from the obvious psychological problems this causes it also may have other severe consequences including the transition of Sexually Transmitted Diseases, as the victim, especially if young, may enter into a marriage with someone of sexual experience.
As forced marriages often take place when the victim is still very young, they could be deprived from their right to education and the possibility of economic independence from their spouse is extremely limited, again making it difficult for them to escape their situation. It is increasingly common for an immigrant’s family to send a victim back to their country of origin to marry or to force a victim to marry a spouse sent from the country of origin. In some cases, victims of forced marriages may also be considered trafficking victims. Due to the unofficial nature of many forced marriages, often a victim is left with no legal protection in the case of a separation. Many families circumvent the law by entering into traditional Muslim marriages, which are not registered or recognised by the state. In the event of a separation, the couple’s assets would not be divided equally as would be the case if you were to become divorced under UK law. The victim may be left homeless and with no possessions, especially if the victim is a female.
Law on marriage in England and Wales is governed by The Marriage Act 1949 and the Matrimonial Causes Act 1973. The minimum age a person in the UK can consent to marriage is 16, although a person under 18 also needs their parents to consent to the marriage. Those marriages that take place abroad in accordance with the correct formalities required by that country’s laws are usually recognised within England and Wales, providing both people involved have the capacity to marry. The Matrimonial Causes Act 1973 says that a marriage is deemed invalid if either of the couple did not consent to it, whether it is the consequence of pressure, unsoundness of mind, a mistake or otherwise.
Unfortunately, victims of forced marriages are rarely aware of these provisions or are too afraid to use them. As forced marriages often happen when the victim is young, they can lack the confidence to challenge their situation.
(Home Office Communications Directorate, 2000)
“No marriage shall be legally entered into without the full and free consent of both parties, such consent to be expressed by them in person after due publicity and in the presence of the authority competent to solemnize the marriage and of witnesses, as prescribed by law.”
(Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, 2007)
Every individual in the United Kingdom has the right to choose the person that they marry. Whatever religion you follow, age and sexuality you are and whether or not your family approve of your choice, you have this fundamental right. Although at present there is no legislation in the United Kingdom clearly banning forced marriage, and it is not recognised as a specific criminal offense, there are several actions that may happen in the process of forcing someone to marry that are criminal offences, these include assault, abduction, rape and imprisonment to name just a few. A person who commits one of these crimes, regardless of whether they are a relative is likely to be prosecuted.
In 2004, the Government extended its definition of domestic violence to include acts committed by intimate partners as well as family members. As a consequence of this, forced marriage and other ‘honour crimes’, are now considered as a form of domestic violence.
An Act of Parliament called The Forced Marriage (Civil Protection) Act 2007, provided courts with the power to make Forced Marriage Protection Orders which are put into place to stop a person forcing another into marriage. British law also allows the courts to protect those victims who have already been forced into marriage and help them to escape their situation (forcedmarriage.net, 2009).
A marriage in the UK requires the consent of both parties involved, if this is not given, the marriage is invalid. Although most forced marriages take place outside the jurisdiction of the UK, if a marriage does take place abroad and one part wishes to end it, divorce is legal. Alternatively, a couple can stay married but live apart with no legal sanction against them. There are only a few countries that have criminalized forced marriage itself, for example Croatia expressly penalizes forced marriage, including criminal acts directed against sexual freedom and sexual morality. Criminalization is not universally accepted as being the best way to eradicate forced marriage and the United Kingdom decided against making it a criminal offence due to concerns that victims would not wish for their families to be punished (Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, 2007).
Forced marriages are widespread but many local efforts to prevent these marriages have been successful. Crisis lines, women’s shelters, schools, groups and even monetary incentives have all been effective in postponing marriages for girls and helping to stop forced marriages (Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, 2007).
There are a number of organisations that have been set up in the UK to help and support victims of forced marriage. Southall Black Sisters was created to provide information and support to women and children experiencing domestic violence, including forced marriage and honour crimes. The aim of their service is to help people to escape violence and abuse and help them to deal with a range of problems such as rape, suspicious deaths and matrimonial issues. Their work consists of making recommendations to the Home Office, Social Services, Police, Schools, Health Authorities and the Foreign and Consular Service on how to deal with those who face the possibility of forced marriage and the problems surrounding it.
The Southall Black Sisters have concerns that there is reluctance from the statuary agencies to intervene in cases of forced marriage as it is viewed by some as a cultural practice and they do not want to appear racist by intervening in such cases. They campaign for widespread acceptance that it is not racist to intervene and that it is the human right of all women no matter what their religion or culture to be afforded state protection against any kind of violence (Southall Black Sisters, nd).
In the United Kingdom we ban all sorts of cultural practices, for example, Female Genital Mutilation. When the harm caused to an individual is so huge, the ‘rights’ of a group must be sacrificed and it is important for the law to step in and intervene. The rights of an individual should not be put behind those of a particular culture. Some may argue that banning forced marriage would victimise and disassociate groups of people with wider culture but how much more victimised can a person be than being forced into a marriage against their will?
It is important that the authorities are sensitive to cultural differences but the softly, softly approach taken towards communities where the practice of forced marriage takes place has already led to thousands of people being kept under house arrest, many being physically abused and there have been some cases of ‘honour killings’ within this country. Banaz Mahmod had sought help from the police four times before she met her death and unfortunately the only time the police responded was when her lifeless body was found. Perhaps if there was more awareness and stronger laws surrounding the issue of forced marriage, Miss Mahmod could have married the man who she had loved and would still be living today.
It can be understandably difficult to detect forced marriages as physical and mental coercion is not usually involved with the wedding itself and even if evidence of physical or mental abuse is found, it is hard to link this with any alleged forced marriage as the victims are often scared to of the consequences of talking to authorities, however, If forced marriages were banned, police investigators would be able to look at DNA samples and conduct interviews with those involved in the wedding and could put together a case to prove that a marriage was not made in true consent of one or both of the spouses. The arrest of suspected initiators of forced marriage would also give the victim time to flee to safety and plan their future.
Although legislation is in place against the crimes that often come hand in hand with forced marriage, a ban would also send out a clear message to society that forced marriage is not a custom that is tolerated in the United Kingdom. It would also show those that are being forced into marriages that the UK law is on their side, which may well increase the number of people that come forward to the authorities as they may feel less isolated.
Marriage should not be something performed to satisfy cultural traditions; instead, it should be looked upon as a sacred union of two individuals engaged in a relationship built on love and maturity. A person’s future cannot be dictated by cultural traditions and ideas, the success of a marriage can only be shaped by human judgement and maturity. Therefore traditions and other concerns are unacceptable reasons for an individual to be forced into marriage.
“A woman’s right to choose a spouse and enter freely into marriage is central to her life and her dignity and equality as a human being”
Norfolk, A. (2006). Despair as forced stay legal. Retrieved November 24, 2006 Smith, J. (2006). Forced Marriage. Retrieved March 4th, 2010
“Marriage should be entered into only with the free will and full consent of the intending spouses” (Universal declaration of human rights, Article 16)
Bouvier J, (nd),available at: http://legal-dictionary.thefreedictionary.com/marriage accessed on 5th March 2010
Home Office Dictorate (2000), available at: http://www.fco.gov.uk/resources/en/pdf/pdf14/fco_choicebyright2000 accessed on 2nd March 2010.
(Article One: Convention on Consent to Marriage, Minimum Age for Marriage and Registration of Marriages. Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, available at: http://www.stopvaw.org/Forced_and_Early_Marriage.html 2007
(forced and early marriage (2007)
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