In early June, the UK Prime Minister David Cameron announced that the Government would be bringing forth new legislation on forced marriages. This would make it a criminal offence to force someone to marry against their will. Similar issues to the ones explored in an earlier post written by my co-contributor, apply to the UK context. Forced marriage in the UK can take a number of forms. Most commonly it involves either young British women being forced into marriage with non-UK nationals, usually taking place outside the UK, or trafficking young non-British women into the UK for the purposes of marriage.
Predominantly occurring in communities with origins in the Indian sub-continent and East Africa, there are estimates of between 5,000 to 8,000 cases each year. For instance, the Forced Marriage Unit, a joint Foreign and Commonwealth Office/Home Office initiative, gave advice and support 1468 times in 2011. This is an issue which primarily impacts women, though 15% of those affected are male. However, the male experience of this practice is often ignored, as is the particular impact of forced marriage on gay and bi-sexual men.
Surely then, the criminalisation of forced marriage should be welcomed? A number of organisations that work with victims of forced marriage have argued against this new legislation. For example, the Family Law Bar Association, in their submission to the government consultation on the proposed legislation, stated: ‘there is a lack of firm evidence to support the need for change and that the vast majority of professionals working in this field are opposed to forced marriage being criminalised as a separate offence’. Similarly, one of the UK’s largest and most influential children’s charities, the NSPCC, noted that they did not believe that the case had been made for criminalising forced marriage, and pointed to concerns that criminalisation could inhibit children and young people coming forward. Central to this idea is the difficulty faced by victims in giving evidence against their parents or extended family; the consequences of such a decision could be very serious, including being disowned, shunned by their community or, the victims of retributive violence.
Criminalisation could force the issue further underground; leaving victims with even less access to assistance, and the police with greater difficulties in tackling this issue. Though this announcement was accompanied by a commitment to additional measures, including training for relevant agencies, funding for these initiatives was relatively modest.
In contrast, those in favour of this legislation argue that the law will empower professionals working with vulnerable girls, and indeed victims themselves, to act. They also argue that criminalisation will send a strong message to perpetrators and contribute to changing attitudes within communities. It would also bring the UK in line with other states that have taken a bold stand on this issue, such as Norway and Cyprus. The existing civil remedy, Forced Marriage Protection Orders, will remain in place, for those who do not wish to prosecute or to criminalise their families. Eighty per cent of those who made consultation submissions indicated that they believed current remedies including Protection Orders were not being used properly.
The division over this policy speaks to another common occurrence in the ‘fight’ against trafficking and exploitation: an over-emphasis on headline legislation, otherwise known as the political response to ‘hot topics’. In the case of this forced marriage legislation, The Guardian reported that this was an attempt by Prime Minister Cameron to increase his popularity with female voters. More generally, human trafficking is often considered one of these ‘hot topics’ (as well as a Daily Mail favourite, combining human rights, sex workers and immigrants). Highly emotive, the subject of extensive social media campaigns replete with celebrity endorsements; strong action on this issue can be a potential vote winner.
Well-crafted legislation can play a key role in a state’s strategy on human trafficking. It can operate as a public message, indicating a state will take a firm line against trafficking, and hopefully operate as a deterrent. It also points to a belief in the worth of victims in giving them the opportunity to receive justice, by assisting in prosecutions of their traffickers as well as providing them with protection. However, the global response to trafficking is littered with good intentions, such as headline legislation.
The UK’s own experience of anti-trafficking legislation has been, putting it kindly, untidy. There have been several pieces of legislation over the past eight years directly or indirectly addressing human trafficking. For example the Sexual Offences Act 2003 criminalised only sex trafficking, relying on the Asylum and Immigration Act 2004 to criminalise other forms of exploitation; currently further changes are making their way through Parliament to comply with a 2011 EU Directive. Anti-trafficking in the UK has been positively impacted by non-legislative responses such as awareness raising, protection measures for vulnerable communities and victims, a professional and committed civil society, and, until recently, funding. In other words, legislation is only one part of the solution.
What can Singapore learn from this experience? Positively, the government has indicated it will not rush through anti-trafficking legislation. However, it is important that the government consider using the Palermo Protocol as the basis for any legislative response to trafficking and that the definition of trafficking as set out in the Protocol is mainstreamed throughout all policy responses to trafficking. This point was succinctly raised in the recent NGO Forum letter, which highlighted the need for a holistic approach to the human trafficking. If and when it is decided that new legislation is required, really high quality research on the current state of trafficking in Singapore that challenges assumptions, should ensure that this is appropriately targeted and prevent the need for subsequent legislation to plug the gaps.
Cameron’s forced marriage legislation announcement also hints at a more insidious problem – failing to adequately address the concerns of those working on the issue at the frontline. It is these organisations and individuals who will have to pick up the pieces from these proposals should they prove inadequate or ill conceived, probably with limited and/or diminishing funding. While the government may have followed established good practice by holding a public consultation, there is value in more robustly engaging with issues raised in the submissions, or at least including measures which address these concerns. To dismiss these submissions, as appears to have happened here, sends a message to civil society, namely that their views only count if they are in line with the government’s. This behaviour, at its most extreme, undermines the dialogue between civil society and government; a dialogue which is key to restraining the power of government. To appear to deny civil society a valid voice in developing a response to forced marriage speaks as much about legislative development as it does about democracy in the UK. The additional measures introduced in tandem with the legislation do not seem to go far enough to adequately address the concerns highlighted by the NGO submissions. Though the context in Singapore may be different, building a mutually respectful and open dialogue with civil society can only be beneficial.