According to the Guardian newspaper, over 3,500 reports of forced marriage were made to the police during a three-year period. Charities believe that there are thousands more victims living in conditions of modern slavery in homes across the UK.
Data from the Iranian and Kurdish Women’s Rights Organisation recorded 3,546 reports between 2014 and 2016. However, some experts believe that this is merely the tip of the iceberg. During the same period, a UK helpline run by a different NGO received 22,030 calls from individuals or agencies concerned about a forced marriage. In 2017 the NGO Karma Nirvana received nearly 9,000 calls, including more than 200 from or about children under 15, and eight children under 10.
The new figures reveal the shocking extent of forced marriage in Britain. Many experts believe that it is a crime that should be investigated and prosecuted as a form of modern slavery. In May 2018 a mother was found guilty of trafficking her daughter to be married in Pakistan. This was the first guilty verdict in this country, despite the large number of reported offences. Trafficking is notoriously hard to prosecute because victims are reluctant to testify against family members.
The mother from Birmingham was jailed for four and a half years for duping her 17-year-old daughter into travelling abroad and forcing her into marriage. She had threatened to rip up her daughter’s passport if she did not marry the 34-year-old man who had got her pregnant when she was just 13.
Less than one week later, a couple who tricked their daughter to travel to Bangladesh in an attempt to force her to marry her first cousin, were convicted of forced marriage charges. The couple were found guilty in Leeds crown court of using violence and threats of coercion to force their daughter into marriage.
Victims of forced marriages are often treated as slaves and subjected to threats and violence. They endure the added burden of their own families pressurising them to stay in these marriages to avoid bringing shame on their families.
The majority of callers to Karma Nirvana’s helpline are British citizens. Threatened with deportation, often unable to speak English and without access to public funds, they find themselves in a cycle of abuse from which it is almost impossible to escape.
According to a UN adviser, the modern-day meaning of slavery doesn’t require in law that a person owns somebody. Instead, it means they treat someone as if they were their property. It is vital that authorities acknowledge this in forced marriage cases. Forced marriage is among the acts prohibited under human trafficking EU law adopted by Britain in 2013, but the legal provision has not translated to policy.
There have been just two convictions for forced marriage since it was criminalised in 2014. The conviction in May 2018 was the first to be secured after a victim gave evidence against a relative.
According to the UN adviser, families who force their children to marry should know that is also a modern slavery offence carrying a sentence of up to life in prison. Victims of such crimes seldom recognise the abuse they suffer as unlawful because they have been groomed from a young age. With victims moved between countries for the purpose of exploitation, the link with trafficking is clear.
Although leaders including David Cameron and Theresa May had referred to forced marriage as a form of slavery, repeated calls to translate this into policy have been unsuccessful. The Home Office claims that the government’s forced marriage unit provided support in almost 1,200 potential cases in 2017. Since its introduction in 2008, there have been more than 1,500 forced marriage protection orders issued.