The charity Karma Nirvana on average receive 22 reports every week from children and young people concerned about a forced marriage, however, despite legislation introduced in June 2014, convictions have been rare until this week when we saw two prosecutions in the space of one week.
Last week saw a young teenager from Birmingham who was forced into marriage and fell pregnant by a man twice her age. The mother was found guilty and sentenced to 4.5 years in prison. This week, in Leeds another young woman who had been receiving abuse through her teenage years, was taken out of college during term time and flown to Bangladesh to celebrate Eid. Within a week she was told of getting married and the father threatened to slit her throat if she was to leave, and made reference to the fact that ‘he’d bought her up for 18 years with love, but that he’d chop her up in 18 seconds if she disrespected him’. The parents were found guilty of using violence, threats and coercion to force their daughter into marriage.
The government introduced the Anti-Social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Act 2014, which amended the Forced Marriage (Civil Protection) Act 2007 and the Family Law Act 1996. It created a new separate offence of forced marriage as well as criminalising breaches of Forced Marriage Protection Orders (FMPOs). Almost four years on, we have witnessed two criminal convictions for forced marriage in the space of one week – what does this mean?
Since the law came into place, the government’s Forced Marriage Unit has advised in 5,111 cases. Since launching a national helpline in 2008 Karma Nirvana has received over 60,000 enquiries relating to forced marriage and honour-based abuse. Karma Nirvana has no advertising, marketing or PR budget and we have no resources for outreach. The need to raise awareness is increasing and our capacity is limited, hence we have extended our programme of Community Champions to deliver our message. There are affected communities across the country that are unaware of Karma Nirvana’s support services, and many are unaware that a forced marriage law even exists. Nationally we are all aware of the fact that we are dealing with the ‘tip of the iceberg,’ and as a result, many victims remain hidden.
With this in mind, it raises an obvious question. How can so many reports only result in two convictions for forced marriage in England?
There are many reasons as to why the vast number of cases reported don’t reach the courts. The most apparent and sadly often the only reason highlighted in the media, is that “victims don’t want to prosecute their parents”. This statement indicates that the victim of a crime is the driving force and the only consideration for prosecution. The reality after a police investigation is for the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) to apply the Full Code test when deciding whether or not to charge a suspect. In simple terms the CPS should consider if:
1) There is sufficient evidence to provide a realistic prospect of conviction.
2) Is it in the public interest to bring the prosecution? Remember the law also has to act as a deterrent.
CPS guidance is unambiguous that where there is sufficient evidence in cases of forced marriage, it will usually “be in the public interest to proceed”. It may be the case that, if a victim does not want to support a prosecution, this does not mean it automatically fails the public interest test. The CPS can pursue victimless prosecutions where there is sufficient evidence to do so. This, in fact, takes the pressure and perception that the victim is the driving force for a trial away from the victim and back firmly where it should be with the CPS.
Karma Nirvana has worked with many victims that appreciate being able to say to their family, “this isn’t me pursuing a conviction – it is the state”. Also, it is essential not to forget that many cases of forced marriage relate to children. Since the law came into force, the Forced Marriage Unit has worked on 719 cases relating to minors. To have just two cases reaching a successful prosecution is disheartening considering the deterrent effect that the Forced Marriage Unit had hoped that criminal law would have. It is likely that the lack of prosecution is sending a very different message to the one that the policy and lawmakers desired.
So, how can the thousands of reports of forced marriage only result in two successful prosecutions? The reality is that so much is misunderstood, and the authorities (police, social services, NHS and education) desperately require training and the confidence to bring about more convictions.
While safeguarding will always be the primary priority for all victims, there is a broader context which is being missed under the assumption that “it is not what victims want”. This focus detracts from a bigger picture (and the original intention behind the forced marriage law) which is to prevent these human rights abuses by challenging the attitudes and mindsets of the perpetrators and instilling confidence in professionals when responding.
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