Adhering to the gravity of the situation, UK government is adamant to criminalize the controversial practice. Under the proposed legislation, expected to be put before Parliament after 2013, forced marriage will become a criminal offence and parents who coerce their children into marrying would be facing the prospect of a prison sentence.
UK is home to a large migrant community hailing from South-Asian including Bangladesh, Pakistan and India. This problem is brought by them into the UK through the existing culture of these countries, where parents by and large control the decision of marriage and spouses. But local research shows that “forced marriages” also happens in the Irish traveling community, Chinese, North African and Somali communities.
UK believes that proper legislation might be the right cure. But campaigners like Sameen Ali and others are already raising the red flag about possible adverse effects of the government plans to criminalize forced marriage in England and Wales.
Opinion: Sameen Ali is a forced marriage victim and campaigner of Pakistani descent. She was forced to marry in Pakistan at the age of 13 to a man she did not know, and gave birth to a boy aged just 14. Her ordeal of humiliation and abuse continued even after her return to the UK. She shares her story in her memoir “Belonging”, which has become an inspiration for many victims. Her courage and determination to fight for her rights is helping others in constructive ways.
She raises plausible concerns related to the up-coming legislation. She says that “Criminalizing the practice would only drive this practice underground, in more secretive manner. The numbers may go down because the victims will probably not come forward any more, because no young person really wants to say ‘arrest mummy and daddy’ because it is mummy and daddy who force the young person into marriage in the first place.”
She also argues that the new law will also create confusion in the minds of young people and cause rifts not only within families but within the different communities living in the UK. The proposed law is already causing stirrings into the migrant community hailing from S.Asia and others, probably because it’s perceived to have offended their culture. Soon the practising communities might take dire steps leading towards more negative repercussions for women, at large.
Sameen has a point when she says young people need to be educated about the good and bad elements of their culture. They do not need to be told that their culture is all bad, so therefore they should disrespect it and be given a mechanism such as this law.
She is struggling to advocate that forced marriages may be part of culture, but have more to do with patriarchal control over children.
Her own life serves as a role model for people because she upped and left that marriage with her young child. After her escape, it took years of struggle to put her life together. She states that a victim’s life does not end at a forced marriage; it’s about finding a method of how to get out of the abuse and try to start over. She agrees that it’s not as easy as it sounds, but that’s where institutional and government’s support comes in.
It’s important to provide opportunities to the victims to get out of the abuse and resume their lives again. For instance; resuming the education and vocational training can be practical in helping abused girls to stabilize socio-economically.
The government is resolute at trying to solve the problem through drawing a strict legislation without acknowledging these cultural diversities.
A most ridiculous aspect of this law is that first victims will be forced into marriage they did not want, and then they will be forced to come into court and give evidence against their parents. Are they on auto-pilot? Not one inch of consideration about the trauma that the victim would already be coping with.
For all her critique, Sameen has raised valid points and also suggested ways for tackling the problem. She says that the power for negotiation lies within young people who need to be equipped how to be a catalyst in all this.
The power lies within the young people. And they need to be empowered to stand up against this abuse and educate their parents about forced marriage.
The practice of forced marriage is deeply rooted and change has to come from within. Awareness needs to come at the root of this cause and young people can create that change, and they can educate their parents against the pitfalls of such marriages.
It is not about criminalizing their parents. And it is not about scoring points either.
Ironically, the rising numbers is an indication that countless youngsters are starting to feel safe and confident, and are speaking out against this abuse. These numbers also provide significant evidence that the young generations are integrating better as compared to the earlier immigrants.
This journey from isolation and parallel reality towards a healthier assimilation requires continued institutional-back-up so young generations can take forward the process in a constructive manner. The forced marriage issue will not vanish over-night from the UK or elsewhere.
But UK government should try intelligent lobbying with community leaders before introducing a law that might not really work.