In the four years since a change in the law regarding forced marriages in England and Wales, there have been two cases where parents have been convicted of forcing their daughters to marry by taking them out of the country to their countries of origin.
One case, in Birmingham in May 2018, involved taking a daughter to Pakistan, the other – in Leeds, also in May 2018 – involved a couple luring their daughter to Bangladesh for a forced marriage. These were the first convictions of their kind in England. In 2015, a man was jailed for forced marriage (among other offences) after a Welsh court found he had raped and blackmailed a woman into marrying him.
These cases are remarkable, not least for the courage demonstrated by the young survivors in speaking out. But to what extent do these judgements represent justice in the eyes of those who have survived forced marriage – and what hurdles must they overcome to obtain it?
Our research team at the Centre for Gender and Violence Research at the University of Bristol have researched forced marriage as part of the wider work on justice, inequality and gender-based violence. A key issue that emerged from our interviews with survivors was that those escaping forced marriage felt a strong sense of injustice, often experienced as a sense of loss of identity, and loss of belonging with their family.
Earlier research drawn up for a report into honour violence by Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary found that survivors of forced marriage are hesitant to approach the police and seek criminal justice relief due to fear of reprisals, particularly of being ostracised by their community.
Yet most victims of forced marriage are coerced into the marriage by parents, siblings and wider family members through a range of physically and emotionally abusive behaviours. Most significantly there is a lack of acceptance that young women have a right to self-determination, particularly in the choice of their partner. Our current research on justice lends further weight to this – survivors we interviewed explained that the lack of acceptance by the wider community of their right to their own life was itself a form of injustice.
The voices of unwilling wives
One survivor was a British woman of Pakistani origin, forced into marriage with a man, in and from her country of origin, who escaped the marriage and divorced her husband, but felt that she was still treated as married by the community before she managed to obtain a religious divorce. She stated:
I just wanted that piece of paper [divorce] because that’s the way the community see it and I want it, you know .. He’s claiming I’m his wife … you see there’s technically no divorce so he’s continuing to claim that.
She also felt that the community’s stigmatising of her was unfair:
I was blamed, I was seen as the bad one, I was being further targeted as somehow not doing what I should do as a dutiful daughter, wife or whatever.
Among British Asian women, the fear of and experience of isolation was a barrier in escaping forced marriage situations. A young British woman with Bangladeshi heritage, who was forcibly taken to Bangladesh for marriage reflected on her situation at the time:
My friends [in the UK] were very concerned, they didn’t know what was going on … I did write to them but I didn’t know if my letters did got sent.
Another British Asian woman, who had escaped a forced marriage at age 13 and is now in her 30s, has had no contact with her birth family, due to her decision to refuse the marriage.
Because I was shunned I left home, it was a choice I had to make … Because you’ve taken away my culture, my identity away from me by not allowing me to be … in contact … I couldn’t have contact with my siblings … And I think that is unfair.
Earlier research has also indicated that while there are multiple factors that lead to forced marriage, immigration plays an important role – young women living in Britain are often forced into marriage with men from their countries of origin in order to make it easier for those men to immigrate to the UK. Forced marriage survivors argued that current marriage visa policy is discriminatory and, in addition, is a form of gendered discrimination, as one British Asian woman recalled:
And now he’s even got a visa on the backing of me … he should not have a visa, he’s got that falsely, using my marriage certificate … he forced me to go in and sign papers you know … why can’t that just go even if they can’t get him.
What we’ve found is that survivors of forced marriage and other forms of gender-based violence value the involvement of the police and ultimately criminal intervention. Timely response from the police at the point of crisis is particularly appreciated – and can be what prevents a young woman from being forcibly removed from the country. But the fact remains that complexity – of these women’s ethnicity and feelings of identity toward their country of origin, of immigration laws, and of their place at the heart of a family and wider community – mean that, for many, justice eludes them.