Home » Legislation » Is legislation always the answer? The debate on the criminalisation of forced marriage in the UK

Is legislation always the answer? The debate on the criminalisation of forced marriage in the UK


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.


1 Comment

  1. Candid revelation !!

    Transgressions involved in arranged marriages, taking forms of forced marriage in disguise, keeping apart marriage for convenience, in the context of Indian sub-continent, according to many social think tank, is silently gaining momentum and is poised to strike young lives to a deplorable extent.

    The UK parliament, for example, after taking so-motto cognizance of this fact, has, under the leadership of Mr Cameron, in mid 2012, made a bold statement that “this heinous, inhumane, oppressive act is never acceptable”. Forced Marriage Protection Orders 2008 (UK) is now equipped, empowered and enforced with provisions for immediate arrest, detention and prosecution – a criminal dimension.

    Why look UK, when we have enough of these in our own backyards !!!

    Crimes involved in arranged marriages in India is driven underground under vicious influence of greed, honour, pride, ego, crony capitalism and other forms of social evils. Indian sub-continent is, increasingly, seen as home of perpetrators of such crimes. Its true and happening now.

    The Indian parliament, having almost caught unaware, clueless and finding it awkward to fathom social repercussions of living in or exposed to a environment of hyper-capitalistic-social-designs and criminalization of arranged marriages in that context, of late, is slowly waking up to this reality. Sadly though, parliamentarians, at present, are contemplating on prioritising their time and efforts on mapping electoral strategies to obtain mandate for the upcoming parliamentary election 2014.

    Young lives are increasingly getting exposed to victimization – institutional stalking, coercing, identity-theft, abuse, ostracism, witching, harassment, threat, kidnapping and other form of crime, leading to murder, which remain oblivious to police intelligence and judiciary.

    In the absence of any law and social noesis to respect and protect domestic cohabitation, young couples in love are systematically restrained and prevented from getting married (legally), and if married (legally) are denied cohabitation, in the pretext of frivolous social conditions/circumstances based on socio-financial status, power to influence, caste, creed, race, and religion. With some of which, unfortunately, an individual has almost no control over, only except his/her finance.

    Using digital and print media as a vehicle, individuals/bodies, having vested interests, under cruel influence of crony capitalism and many other forms of social evils prevalent in our soceity, are spreading dodgy/peculiar beliefs about marriage and customs which was/is never ever found in our laws or in any religion practiced in our country.

    Judges are constrained/bribed/influenced, (even by media for the sake of news), by perpetrators of crime to deliver peculiar judgments on issues of recognizing/sanctioning even a legally valid marriage under shadows of abominable social conditioning in an utterly incapacitated state of lawlessness with no action or consideration from a callous/atrocious/demoralized/corrupt police force which is essentially provisioned/authorized/assigned to serve and protect people/society.

    The inherent underlying phenomenon, giving rise to this disingenuous social system, and the reasons it is being unwillingly, but slowly getting acceptance, is due to widespread socio-economic disparity, money-might, ignorance, poverty, inclusion of immigrants into our legislative process, indecisiveness of police to act upon intelligence inputs, lack of leadership/motivation/responsibility/knowledge of National Human Rights Commission and National Commission for Women to initiate/influence/steer legislative process/reforms and absence of a Social Security System that aim to protect an individual’s physical, financial, intellectual, sexual and spiritual needs.

    Considering our civilization, society, and technological advancement over these years and in the events of ever-changing social dynamics due to a changing economy and globalization, arn’t we increasingly finding it arduous to understand/accept a piteous state of governance catapulting our hopes and expectation in every front very often, when see :-
    (1) a system occupied with high-level scams, corruptions and day-light loot of money in the magnitude of or equivalent to annual budget of some under-developed/developing nations,
    (2) a system obstinate about sympathizing and protecting interests of capitalists/bania,
    (3) a system crippled with an indolent judiciary which is riding upon a Criminal Justice Delivery System as old as 100 years old with no symbolic urgency to reform it ???

    Can we expect the parliamentarians of this century, irrespective of their political affiliations or party-lines, oblige to deliver this nation a Social Security System that aims to protect an individual’s democratic existence, not in theory, but in practice?

    Marriage is a natural union of two souls, agreeably united, a social institution.

    Let us encourage, promote and protect it, may be for convenience, but also for love.

    © Subhash Nayak

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