Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Forced marriages 'should be criminalised as they ruin the lives of many', say MPs

The law does little to protect thousands of young people who are pushed into marriages against their will and risk repercussions from family members if they disobey, according to new findings.

A report by the Commons' Home Affairs Select Committee said there was not enough support for victims and the situation is 'set to worsen, with many specialist services particularly at risk from spending cuts'.

Almost 300 orders to prevent forced marriages have been issued between November 2008 and this February but there has been a lack of effective follow-up action.

Only one person has been jailed for breaching an order.

MPs also said many schools were not fulfilling their responsibilities.

Partly this was because of a 'great deal of ignorance and a culture of disbelief around the risks involved' and 'an enormous fear of tackling the issues in case they get it wrong and appear racist'.

Keith Vaz MP, the committee chairman, said: 'We believe that the best way to deter people from forcing individuals into marriage is through criminalising forced marriage.

'Taking this bold step alongside providing a range of services supporting victims of violence and raising awareness in schools must be a priority for the Government.

'There should be zero tolerance of this harmful activity that ruins the lives of so many.'

The committee called for more support for teachers, saying it was 'disappointed' with assurances from Education Secretary Michael Gove that schools were already aware of the guidance available.

MPs said: 'We are extremely worried about the fact that many schools continue to refuse to engage in preventative activity with children at risk of forced marriage.

"Teachers who are not trained to respond properly to cases of forced marriage can inadvertently put pupils in greater danger by, for example, contacting their families.

Intervention: MP Keith Vaz said Education Minister Michael Gove (R) was not ensuring pupils were not at risk from arranged marriagesIntervention: MP Keith Vaz said Education Minister Michael Gove (R) was not ensuring pupils were not at risk from arranged marriages
 MP Keith Vaz said Education Minister Michael Gove  

'In the light of clear evidence that many schools are not fulfilling their statutory responsibilities with regard to forced marriage, the Department for Education must provide more active support to teachers to enable them to carry out a role which may risk upsetting cultural sensibilities but is nonetheless vital for child protection.'

The report also highlighted the plight of estranged or abused partners 'who are under pressure from their families to sign a request for their spouses to have indefinite leave to remain in the UK'.

The MPs said: 'Clamping down on these immigration abuses is essential first and foremost in order to protect current and future victims of forced marriage, but also to form part of a controlled immigration policy.'

A Government spokesman said the Forced Marriage Unit provided support to almost 500 British citizens at risk in the UK and abroad last year.

He said: "Those who force people into marriage against their will can expect to face civil penalties including up to two years in prison.

'Forced marriage is an appalling and indefensible practice that we are working hard to stop.

'We provide training for professionals to help them identify potential victims and improve awareness of the issue so that those at risk - including children and young people - know where to go for support.

However a senior law lecturer said criminalising forced marriages was the wrong approach.

Dr Brigitte Clark from the University of East Anglia's law school, said: 'The committee's conclusion does not seem to be borne out by the research evidence produced for the past three years on forced marriage.

'One of the main arguments against a change in the law is the concern that girls affected by forced marriages will not speak out if there is a possibility that their parents will face criminal sanctions.

'There is also a fear that the parents could, in reaction, adopt new approaches, such as sending young girls to their country of origin to be married, which would be an additional injustice for victims of forced marriages.'
She added: 'An increasingly multifaceted, well-funded, trained and sensitive approach is needed to deal with the issue of forced marriage.

'Civil practice and procedure is a possible tool to shape the ideology of the community without the risk of antagonising or polarising such communities.

'Criminalisation is expensive and not necessarily the answer: time will tell as to whether the criminal route favoured by Belgium, Germany and Norway will be more successful than the civil law approach of France and England.'

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