Should forcing a child into marriage be a criminal offence?
From Bolton to Bangladesh, prevention rather than prosecution is the best strategy for a child – though sometimes the stick of the criminal law is needed to reinforce the carrot of persuasion.
This is the lesson learnt from working with millions of children and their families across the developing world where girls are too often pulled out of school to get married.
An effective measure overseas has been to employ both staff as child protection officers and a system of community volunteers who are trained in child protection, to identify and prevent abuse. Last September, I was in Theraka, a drought-stricken part of Kenya where livestock were dying through lack of water. One of our local volunteers identified a very poor family who were forcing their daughter of 14 to get married so they could restock their goats given by the family of the groom in exchange for her. They would not listen to argument, so Faith, our child protection officer, brought in the police – the girl was returned, as were the goats.
But how do goats in Kenya and villages in Bangladesh relate to our young people here? Most families practising forced marriage in the UK are from communities overseas where it is practised. The reasons for a high prevalence of early marriage in Pakistan are just the same as those cited by a study from the Department of Children Schools and families in the UK. A group of fathers in Sindh province, Pakistan, were asked the ideal age of marriage for girls – they said 25. And the actual age? Between 14 and 18. Why? Family honour – even down to a sense that adolescent girls need to be safeguarded and kept away from public places – peer or family pressure, strengthening family links, financial gain and care, particularly of girls with disabilities. For each reason there is an answer – it takes time to change behaviours.
I visited one of many communities in Bangladesh that has agreed to end early forced marriage. Working with the children, parents, religious leaders, local and national government to get this agreement takes time – an average six years – but that way whole communities are declaring themselves free of the practice. The estimated 5000 to 8000 young people in the UK who are being forced into marriage also deserve that protection.
My worry is that by simply criminalising forced marriage the government will think their job is done. Legislative activity, the criminalisation of forced marriage by itself, does not result in action or prevention. How do we ensure a stronger focus on prevention – when too often the topic is deemed too sensitive to raise in schools or communities?
Prevention requires strong laws yes, but that is not enough. It requires awareness of those laws. It requires strong peer pressures from within the community and strong political leadership. This government has shown great political leadership at CHOGM where the Prime Minister pressed for a commitment by all Commonwealth countries to end early forced marriage – and got it! He needs to be backed here in the UK by the Education department, the Minister for Women, local councillors and community programmes so that no child ever again suffers a forced marriage.
Before working internationally I practised as a criminal and family solicitor, starting the year the Domestic Violence Act was enacted in 1976. Personally it was tough trying to get protection for a woman after her family had been shattered by violence and earlier preventative action would have saved children seeing things a child never should know. The argument for a criminal offence is that as society shows how seriously it condemns the practice, it enables fast police action and makes the state’s duty to punish perpetrators clear. One way forward would be a model based on the protection from the Harassment Act which gives the victim the choice between starting a civil case or asking the police to prosecute.
But in the end, political convenience, the difficulty of governments facing culturally sensitive issues could trump the rights of these children. We are already failing them, but they need more protection not less.Tagged in: Bangladesh, child abuse, child marriage, forced marriage
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