25th January was the second reading of Lord Lester of Herne Hill’s bill proposing civil remedies to protect potential victims of forced marriage. I was sent to take notes as designated English speaker from the Iranian and Kurdish Women’s Rights Organisation.
I was walking in while Lord Lester was explaining the motivations behind his Bill.
Lord Lester said that on the bicentenary of the abolition of slavery, it was scandalous that we were turning a blind eye to the sexual and domestic slavery of women; he said is was fully 30 years since he called for the protection of minority women, and regretted how little had been achieved. He noted that in India, legislators were playing close attention to the civil approach to see if it could be used to supplement their current, ineffective laws against forced and child marriages.
Running through the clauses, Lord Lester explained how the law made advancements on the existing provisions of the protection from harassment bill; how he added the provision for third party applications in response to requests by family law expert, Anne-Marie Hutchinson, in an attempt to make the Bill an effective tool for protection. Lord Lester describes his Bill as adopting a ‘victim centred human rights approach’; his law benefits from the support of Southall Black Sisters, Karma Nirvana, Imkhaan, Liberty, the NSPCC and many other NGOs, by police representatives, by family law solicitors and the Muslim Parliament.
Here’s a few highlights from the comments, but the Hansard is worth reading. Everyone unanimously agreed that the Bill was A Good Thing but even without the ingredient of debate it’s worth the time.
Baroness Uddin and Lord Ahmed have spent a year holding a consultation of the subject where they found overwhelming support for the precept of allowing the victim to define whether they were suffering coercion. While Baroness Uddin welcomed the legislation (Lord Lester had worked with both her and Baroness Scotland in drawing it up) she pointed out that for the bill to be effective: that local authorities need to be prepared to provide support; that there must be mandatory training in the new law for all agencies, and she questioned whether the infrastructure of support was there at a time when agencies are closing down, and she said that without the financial emancipation of minority women the Bill could not be more than a symbolic act.
The Bishop of Manchester was naturally anxious to place forced marriage as a cultural rather than religious tradition, and while he appreciated the MCB’s concerns about stigmatising communities, he believed that his own experiences in Manchester showed that some form deterrent was called for.
Lord Sheikh, representing the Conservative Muslims Forum supports the bill; he dismissed fears of ‘stigmatising communities’ pointing out that forced marriage is a global problem by no means restricted to any group or geographical area. He made a clear distinction between arranged marriage (as practised successfully in his own extended family, he said) and forced marriage; his only reservation was that it was possible for there to be fake accusations, just as there are occasionally fake cases in rape cases.
Baroness Falkner presented some statistics from the UNFPA’s most recent research; that there are 82 million girls between the ages of 10 and 17 in forced marriages in the world, that in rural India 30% of girls are married before the age of 13 and that these values are reflected here; but that the state has a duty to distinguish between value pluralism and cultural relativism. She finished by saying that the cultural sentiment that underpins FM must be eradicated and that we (meaning, I believe, BME peers) must take this message into the communities.
Lord Ahmed: Lord Ahmed expressed concern of the media’s ability to demonise communities, but also recognised the everyday reality: of young men with drug problems, with girlfriends and children, who have wives brought over from the sub-continent to restore their reputation, but tat these wives are mistreated and sometimes returned to their home countries without a passport when their husbands find a replacement. Lord Ahmed said arranged marriages should be between British Asians who have a culture in common and not as a backdoor method of immigration
Baroness Murphy: Related FM to ‘honour’ culture and the segregation of women and men in general and a culture which doesn’t respect women’s and children’s rights. She said that the MCB should use their influence and financial power to support this bill.
Baroness Butler-Sloss, a former judge and director of the NSPCC, who collaborated on the bill, recounted a visit to Mirpur where local community leaders told her that the English were taking the tradition of cousin-marriage too seriously as an example of how expatriate communities can be living with a fossilised view of their cultures and traditions.
She said that South Asian communities have a tendency to be law-abiding and are used to using civil courts; that she hoped that civil action would also give families some breathing space to diffuse the situation and hopefully reduce family rifts. She welcomed the powers to get injunctions backed up by the power of arrest; and clarified that the provision for third party applications would mean that the judges would ensure that the victim’s representative was an appropriate person.
Lord Desai: Lord Desai drew parallels between this Bill and the civil rights movement, where legal and cultural change must progress in step. He said that religion did not allow for forced marriage, and even if religion did permit forced marriage it would still be wrong. Like Baroness Butler-Sloss, he pointed to a culture frozen in the 40s. Lord Desai talked about forced marriage as an abuse of immigration, and called for separate and sensitive interviews with both partners before granting a visa to an overseas applicant.
Lord Dholakia was expressing his approval of the Bill when I had to go and get the kids from school. The degree of support and approval for this Law, the collaborative effort behind it, and the elegance with which it sidesteps every possible objection that arose in the consultation process for the proposed criminalisation makes it feel that it’s progression into law is inevitable.
There seemed to me to be a real feeling of pride in the Act, as a well-considered, well-researched and wholly necessary law which demonstrates what the Second Chamber can achieve.
Its effectiveness however, can only be judged in practice: the act against FGM has been on the books for 23 years without a single prosecution being made under it. It is essential that the intent behind this law I backed up by resources; as Baroness Uddin states, “I fear that a solitary Act may be a symbolic outlawing of forced marriage-a good thing-but, without sufficient practical and mainstream support such as economic emancipation and opportunities for education and training for women from specific minority communities, it will not be able to eradicate forced marriage.”
It is also questionable if the civil route has the same deterrent value that the criminal one would have had; however, the tools it provides for the protection of vulnerable people are much needed particularly, if, as Lord Lester hopes, it provides a starting-point for educational, administrative and legislative reform.
Disclaimer: of course all views expressed here reflect my own position and are not an official statement from IKWRO
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Filed in: Culture,Sex equality