Abroad, the United Kingdom leads the way in tackling forced marriage - but more can be done to halt the practice at home, according to think-tank
In response to moves towards the criminalisation of forced marriage in England, the think-tank Demos has published a report on how to tackle the issue in the United Kingdom and abroad. The study, Ending Forced Marriage
, outlines how government can go beyond criminalisation - stopping potential forced marriages before the young woman leaves European borders. It calls on the government to invest in and promote evidence-based schemes that have already been proved to work - many of which Britain employs abroad, but not at home.
The research, conducted with the international charity Plan and the Department for International Development's own in-country teams, shows that the British government needs to learn from its own best practice abroad. In countries where forced and early marriage is a particular problem - in the rural Amhara region of Ethiopia, for example, where half of all adolescent girls are married before the age of 15 - supporting whole community discussions around the positive economic and social benefits of delaying marriage and continuing education has been shown to have a sustained positive impact. Drawing on the example of countries like Ethiopia, the research shows that legislation to combat forced and early marriage will only work if men, boys and community leaders are a central part of the conversation.
One project that has been piloted on a small scale in the UK is Imkaan's 'peer educator' project. It involved recruiting women from within the different communities - for example, Turkish, South Asian, Middle Eastern, African and Irish Travelling - affected by forced marriage and honour-based violence. The participants were trained to run education sessions about forced marriage in community settings such as Mosques and community centres, initiating discussions of issues that had previously been taboo. The appeal of the project for policy makers and other campaigning groups is derived from its ability to piggy-back off existing structures and to use qualifications such as those developed by Imkaan and offered by the National Open College Network to add value to the experience of volunteers.
Similarly, the women's rights organisation Southall Black Sisters is currently running a scheme in two schools in London that aims to embed an ethos of challenging violence against women and girls into both the curriculum and the structure of schools. The project encourages pupils to take control of situations by teaching them the analytical tools to understand the issues that face black, Asian and minority ethnic women. The pupils are then encouraged to apply these tools within the wider school environment, acting as ambassadors and mentors to other year groups and using assemblies and awareness-raising days to campaign for gender equality and against gendered violence.
Britain is without a doubt a leader in the fight against the coercive practice of forced marriage and the government is to be acclaimed for supporting organisations such as Southall Black Sisters and Imkaan, whose projects are part-funded by the Forced Marriage Unit - incorporating both the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and the Home Office. However, in a UK context, more still needs to be done to embed such good-practice in communities and schools across the country. The Department for Education should disseminate educational material about forced marriage to all schools, and encourage teachers as they support pupils who may encounter such pressures. There should also be a day of statutory training to be mandatory for all public servants who may come into contact with victims of forced marriage, dispelling the mystique around the practice and enabling public servants to respond sensitively yet robustly to the issue should it arise.
The government also needs to step up to its own rhetoric and honour its commitment to ending forced marriage internationally. By using its position as a leader in the field, the UK needs to encourage partner governments to make a similar commitment to ending forced marriage across Europe and the Commonwealth. The UK should be urging concrete legal changes in key partner countries - such as Pakistan and India - to ensure that the UK legal code used to protect victims of forced marriage can be applied and implemented internationally. As the research shows, it is only by responding to, and talking openly about, forced marriage that real change can take place. Criminalisation may be a step forward, but it is not in itself enough. Phillida Cheetham is a co-author of Ending Forced Marriage, published by the think-tank Demos