his month, a 34-year old businessman from Cardiff become the first person in the UK to be jailed under the forced-marriage laws introduced inJune 2014.
Forced marriage is defined as being when one or both spouses do not consent to the marriage, or when consent is extracted under duress – which can include physical, psychological, financial, sexual and emotional pressure.
Iwan Jenkins, head of the Crown Prosecution Service’s rape and serious sexual offences unit in Wales, said: “Forced marriage wrecks lives and destroys families. We hope that today’s sentence sends a strong message that forced marriage will not be tolerated in today’s Britain.”
According to the Home Office, in 2014 the Forced Marriage Unit – set up in 2005 to promote and enforce the goverment’s policy on the issue – gave advice or support to 1,267 cases, 79% of which involved female victims. Over 10% involved victims with disabilities and 11% of cases involved victims under the age of 16.
Progress on addressing the issue is slow, and campaigners and academics have raised questions about the efficacy of the new laws, given that only one conviction has taken place in the year since they came into effect.
Respond, a UK-based charity supporting people with learning disabilities affected by trauma and abuse, this month launched My Life, My Marriage, a project aimed at challenging the practice of forcing marriage on people with learning disabilities.
The project will seek to raise awareness about the problem, and will offer advocacy to people with learning disabilities and their support networks, and training to professionals, practitioners and community leaders. It will include an educational road show and sessions in schools to educate young people with learning disabilities about forced marriage.
Luthfa Khan, who is leading the project, explained that the campaign came about in response to a number of cases Respond has dealt with over the years involving possible forced marriages. At the launch of the project in London last week, Khan suggested that the number of cases dealt with by the Home Office is likely to be “just touching the surface”. Highlighting the complexity of the problem, she cautioned that the cases that Respond deals with are nuanced and varied, and may look very different from people’s conception of forced marriage.
The issue of consent is one of those complexities. While Respond is supportive of people with learning disabilities who are able to give consent and do make the decision to get married freely, Khan is keen to stress the importance of providing support for those who may be pressured into doing so: “Through our referral service, we aim to work towards removing labels which further victimise people, taking each case on its own merit and working with people to fully understand what is actually happening within each situation.”
She explains how nuanced some of the cases can be:
Within many families there can be a belief that marriage is a rite of passage and some families may even perhaps wish or hope that it will “cure” the person of learning disabilities. Other families, particularly where there are older parents, might be worried about who will look after their son or daughter after they are gone. So through marriage they are hoping to bring in someone who will be a lifetime carer.
Even if carried out benignly, they have not considered that the person with learning disabilities once married will have to deal with [issues like] sex, having children, a commitment to another person and compromises when living with someone else. And worse than this they may face rejection once the spouse realises that they have a disability or even worse they may be physically, emotionally and/or sexually abused.
But also increasingly we are seeing people with learning disabilities becoming targeted for forced marriage through coercion or trickery in order to extract their finances or accommodation or even for passports or visas.”
Respond Chief Executive Noelle Blackman worries that the nuance of the cases they see is not allowed for by the new legislation: “The new Health and Care act promotes advocacy for people with learning disabilities, but we are concerned that this is likely to come from generic advocacy agencies without the specialised knowledge that would be needed.”
Let’s hope, as Khan does, that this first case to be prosecuted, “will send out a very strong message”. And, as slow progress continues to be made towards addressing the problem of forced marriage, My Life, My Marriage, will continue to highlight the complexity of the issue, supporting victims who might otherwise fall through the gaps.
For more information and support for people with learning disabilities, visitwww.respond.org.uk or call 0207 387 1222.