Professor Aisha K. Gill argues that more needs to be done to improve the efficacy of initiatives designed to protect those at risk of forced marriage @DrAishaKGill

The UK’s first successful prosecution of a mother who duped her daughter into a forced marriage in Pakistan returned a verdict of guilty on 22 May 2018 at Birmingham Crown Court: the mother was charged on two counts of forced marriage and one of perjury. Throughout the trial, she denied claims that she forced her teenage daughter into marriage, stating that the young woman had “agreed, she is ready for married”. The teenager, who cannot be named for legal reasons, was taken to Pakistan at the age of 17 by her mother and told the trip was a holiday, but later found herself forced to marry a relative almost twice her age.

Foreign and Commonwealth Office, where the Forced Marriage Unit is based (Aisha K. Gill)

A further conviction was also secured at Leeds Crown Court on 29 May 2018. In this case, the parents tricked their teenage daughter (who cannot be named for legal reasons) into travelling to Bangladesh, where they forced her to marry her first cousin. The parents were found guilty of using violence and threats/coercion to force their daughter into marriage. The young woman was 19 and studying for her A-levels when she was taken for what she thought was a six-week holiday to Bangladesh to see family and celebrate Eid. Her father told her after arriving in Bangladesh that the groom had been chosen as a suitable husband, and that the marriage had been planned for some time. When the daughter refused to go through with the arrangement, she sought the support of her mother. However, her mother swore at her, telling her that ‘no’ was not an option and that, if necessary, violence would be used against her if she continued to refuse the marriage. The young woman’s father also threatened his daughter when she remained opposed to the marriage: “[He] would ask her, for instance, if she’d changed her mind yet and threatened to slit her throat if she didn’t comply. And told her that he’d brought her up for 18 years with love, but that he’d chop her up in 18 seconds if she disrespected him.” Days before the wedding, the young woman was rescued after her younger sister contacted the British High Commission. The British High Commission in Bangladesh, the UK government’s Forced Marriage Unit and Bangladeshi police worked together to return the young woman to the UK.

These cases are just two examples of forced marriage, which remains a significant human rights issue. However, as I suggest, shifting socio-cultural attitudes towards forced marriage and raising awareness of the legal provisions surrounding it can help combat the problem long term.

What is forced marriage?

Most child marriages are forced marriages: the child’s consent is neither sought nor considered. The issue of consent in marriage generally has been problematic for a number of researchers, including myself, as forced marriage has been defined as that conducted without the full and free consent of the couple (or one of them) involved.

For example, the Home Office’s definition assumes the distinction between arranged marriage and forced marriage is based on “full and free consent”. However, this definition does not specifically address the issue of age. While much of the official literature on forced marriage indicates that those subjected to coercion in relation to marriage are young girls under the age of 18, however, individuals of any age can be forced into marriage.

Child marriage is defined by UNICEF as a formal marriage or informal union where one or both partners is/are under the age of 18. This definition is based on Article 1 of the United Nations Convention of the Rights of the Child (CRC), which defines a child as “every human being below the age of eighteen years”. Although both boys and girls are affected by child marriage, girls are more adversely affected in both number and intensity. Child marriage is also referred to as “early marriage”, which has a similar conceptual definition: “any marriage carried out below the age of 18 years, before the girl is physically, physiologically, and psychologically ready to shoulder the responsibilities of marriage and childbearing”. While both terms seem synonymous, it has been argued that the term “early marriage” is vague, does not necessarily refer to children and fails to address the fact that what is early for one person or society may be late for another.

The Council of Europe Parliamentary Assembly further argues that even when there is an explicit provision for minors to marry, subject to parental consent or other exceptions, child marriage should still be considered forced marriage. International legal instruments require the free and informed consent of both parties for a marriage; since child marriages do not meet this condition, it is considered a serious human rights violation. Although child marriage is an ancient, worldwide practice, it is condemned or criminalised by several modern international, regional and national legal instruments. Rules in these documents generally mandate the consent of both parties, recommend a minimum marriage age and require marriage registration to better review the occurrences of forced and early marriages and to ensure that both partners receive equal rights and protections.

In the UK, recent legal provisions, including the Forced Marriage (Civil Protection) Act 2007 and the accompanying standalone criminal offence introduced in England and Wales in June 2014, indicate the English law’s clear position on forced marriage. Although courts have been able to issue civil orders preventing forced marriage since 2008, because of the 2014 changes, offences are now punishable by up to seven years’ imprisonment. Moreover, a number of European countries have already criminalised forced marriage.

Prevention and protection

Demonstration on specialist BME/VAWG services, Downing Street, London (Aisha K. Gill)

I was an expert witness in the landmark Birmingham case and my research to date shows that forced marriage is often so normalised in affected communities that there is little recognition on the part of victims and their families that it is morally wrong, let alone illegal. For example, victims/survivors[1] with whom I have been involved in my work make clear that while consent is the primary distinction between forced and arranged marriages, emotional pressure may blur that distinction. This begs the question: what prevention and protection initiatives can be enacted to end the forcing of children and young people into marriage? First, more needs to be done to improve the efficacy of targeted initiatives designed to protect those—both female and male—at risk of forced marriage. For women, these initiatives might involve attempts to improve awareness of their rights and to offer them better legal recourse and stronger support organisations. For men, interventionist strategies could involve providing more opportunities for them to discuss the issue and having safe spaces in which to question gendered concepts of what it is to be a victim/survivor. In addition, taking a consciously gendered approach could challenge and resolve cultural conflicts and raise awareness of forced marriage as a matter that affects the human rights of both men and women who are pressured to enter into such an arrangement. Forced marriage is a basic human rights issue: victims who are forced into a marriage in the name of honour suffer infringements of their right to life and their right not to be subject to cruel or inhumane treatment. The scale and consequences of these human rights abuses include social exclusion, and detrimental impacts on health and education. There is also the fear and trauma that victims, or potential victims, of these crimes can experience throughout their lives. So how can this problem best be addressed long term? It is essential to find ways to work with community elders in affected communities and institutions to create awareness of the legal position around forced marriages, and debate how socio-cultural attitudes towards marriage and the rights of young people can be adapted to fit within Britain’s heterogeneous society.

My expert witness work for West Midlands Police and the Crown Prosecution Service in connection with this case makes it clear that not all South Asian communities have entrenched views on forced marriage; in fact, many are dynamic and open to change, with opinion on this issue in a constant state of flux. In these South Asian communities, people are actively questioning the effect this form of abuse has on young girls and women’s human rights. Instead of forming stereotypes of communities where forced marriage remains a problem, recognising the dynamism is the most effective way of tackling forced marriage. Working with these communities to change attitudes, rather than imposing judgements from outside, is essential to contesting the practice in the UK. As this landmark case demonstrates, particularly the evidence given by this brave young woman, changes in responses to this practice are at work within British South Asian communities.

Furthermore, a number of factors contribute to a successful outcome for those subjected to forced marriage. These include offering a supportive practitioner response; offering a rapid response; listening; establishing trust; being accessible and available; giving clear guidance to victims/survivors as well as perpetrators and extended families; and being aware that personal experiences of coercion in relation to forced marriage can vary greatly. In addition, using discretion and professional judgement to develop a tailored, client-centred approach, while still operating within statutory remits, is important.

Both the Birmingham and Leeds forced marriage prosecutions are important examples that measures are being undertaken by the police and criminal justice system to address the forced marriage problem. However, these institutions would not have reached this stage without the incredible and tireless work of many specialist BME violence against women services, such as Ashiana, Apna Haq, Hemat Gryffe and Southall Black Sisters, which have a long history of providing diverse responses to forced marriage and related abuses. In light of these developments, I hope the two recent prosecutions discussed here will help shift attitudes within all communities and ultimately bring an end to forced marriage.

Further reading

Gill, A.K., Harvey, H. (2016) Examining the impact of gender on young people’s views of forced marriage in Britain, Feminist Criminology,

Gill, A.K, Van-Engeland, A. (2014) Criminalisation or ‘multiculturalism without culture’? Comparing British and French approaches to tackling forced marriage, Journal of Social Welfare and Family Law, Issue, 3 (36): 241-259.

Gill, A.K., Anitha, S. (2011) Forced Marriage: Introducing a social justice and human rights perspective, London: Zed Books (ISBN: 9781848134638).

[1] I frequently use the word ‘survivor’ rather than ‘victim’, as ‘survivor’ conveys an element of strength and hope. Additionally, wherever possible, I have made it a priority to use the terms that women I have spoken to prefer.

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Aisha K. Gill is a Professor of Criminology at the University of Roehampton and was the expert witness for the prosecution in the UK’s first successful prosecution for forced marriage.
Twitter @DrAishaKGill

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