In July, The Guardian reported that a Yorkshire school was encouraging female students to put spoons in their underwear in order to signal to authorities that they were victims of forced marriage. This would trigger airport metal detectors and alert airport authorities as the girls were being taken abroad. One of the women featured in The Guardian’s report was Nazreen (not her real name), who was born in West Yorkshire. At 13-years-old, Nazreen returned home from school to a surprise party being thrown to celebrate her own engagement. She was told by her parents that they were celebrating the fact that she would marry her 19-year-old cousin from Afghanistan, whom she’d never met. Nazreen explains:
“Up until about nine, I had the average childhood, I was a bit of tomboy. However, the minute I started puberty it all changed. My mother was the main perpetrator, telling me that I was growing up and I was a woman now. I was withdrawn from my mainstream school and sent to an all-girls faith school: my mother told me that where I was going I didn’t need an education.”
Only after two near-fatal overdoses and contacting Childline was Nazreen saved and put into care.
Forced marriage is, unfortunately, not at all a thing of the past. It has long flown under the radar in the UK, with campaigners estimating the number of victims to be in the thousands. Despite the practice being made illegal in 2014, there have been few prosecutions and only two convictions.
A forced marriage occurs when no consent is given or when consent is coerced through threats or violence. Although the practice predominantly occurs across South Asia, forced marriage happens all over the world and is not limited to any single religion or nationality. Worldwide, women and girls make up the vast majority of victims.
The way forced marriage plays out and is treated, culturally and legally, makes inequality between the sexes glaringly obvious. Power differences between men and women (girls, really, in this case) are not taken into account. Immigration officials turn a blind eye while abuse happens right under their noses. Caseworkers grant rapists the legal right to continue to access and abuse girls by issuing them UK Spouse Visas, while women’s rights to safety, security, and autonomy are ignored. Women and girls’ voices are silenced and the law fails to protect them.
Often what happens is that British teenagers and children are duped into a holiday by their family members, then, once abroad, they are forced to marry men they’ve never met. Taken far from home, away from the intervention of friends or concerned school teachers, victims have no choice but to comply.
In one case, a 15-year-old girl named Rubie Marie who grew up in Wales was taken to Bangladesh and “dressed up like a doll,” while her uncle took bids from men in the village. She was then forced to marry a 30-year-old man who she had never met before. Rubie told the The Times:
“I was crying my eyes out throughout, from the night before. I started getting anxiety attacks. I just had to get through it as I knew if I didn’t I wouldn’t be allowed back.”
After the wedding, Rubie taught herself to endure unwanted sex by “disconnecting my brain from my body and taking the rape.”
Rubie got pregnant at 16 and fled her husband after she gave birth, but her husband tracked her down and followed her to the UK. He tried to use the fact that he had a British child to argue that he had a right to remain in the UK. However, he was eventually deported (most-likely for reasons unrelated to the forced marriage and rape).
Tackling forced marriages has proven to be particularly problematic since children don’t generally know what their human rights are. They lack the resources and knowledge that would enable them to come forward when these rights are violated.
Technically, there are ways for girls to challenge their exploitation: a victim can stop her “husband” from coming to the UK by blocking his spouse visa application, making her what is known as a “reluctant sponsor.” A spokesperson for the Home Office explains: “If an individual refuses to act as the sponsor for a visa application, then under the immigration rules, that visa should not be issued.” However, out of the 175 reports made by reluctant sponsors last year, only 88 were investigated further. This means that a potential 87 victims fell through the cracks of the system, and almost half of the investigated cases were granted a visa regardless. Ultimately, 129 reluctant sponsors attempted to, but were not able to, block their husband’s visas. This number could climb to 139 should the remaining 10 cases still pending due to an an appeal result in a visa.
Home Office hypocrisy has no end: while immigration officials are quick to refuse visas for genuine, consenting couples, they continue to approve visas for men who purchase wives overseas. Many couples fail to fulfill the stringent spouse visa requirements by falling to sufficiently “prove” their relationship is long-lasting and genuine. In a bid to catch fraudulent marriages, Home Office officials comb through spousal visas for tedious irregularities that they can cite in order to discredit the couple’s relationship. Applicants have been refused for submitting too much evidence as well as too little. Yet teenage brides who are reluctant to sign for a visa, who cry in their wedding photographs, and who carry the burden of pregnancy on their underdeveloped bodies after being raped by a man twice their age apparently do not warrant suspicion or skepticism from the Home Office. The Home Office routinely fails to challenge visa applicants, granting the men who abuse women and girls a spouse visa without investigating obvious warning signs.
To exacerbate matters, forced marriages are a heavily muted problem within communities and Western authorities are ill-equipped and hesitant to address the problem right in front of them. Many fear appearing culturally insensitive or racist. Families themselves don’t believe what they’re doing is wrong, and British police fear interfering as communities and families might brand them as racists, jeopardizing their jobs and undermining their foothold in local areas.
The last chance a forced marriage victim has to block her oppressor from tormenting her for life is to file a statement. However, after indicting her exploiters in this statement and outlining the trauma she has experienced at the hands of her oppressors, the authorities then disclose the statement to her spouse and family. This is problematic the victim’s own family are the ones responsible, exposing her to honour-based violence and further danger.
Honour-based violence is inherently linked to forced marriage as they are both steeped in tradition of “honour” and “shame.” Once it becomes known that the victim has gone to the authorities, many families see this as a dishonorable stain on the family name. Hounded by her own family, her husband’s family, and the community, women face stalking, kidnapping, physical violence, emotional violence, threats, blackmail, and sometimes murder. According to the Halo Project, 12 to 15 honour killings happen in the UK every year. Victims trapped in a forced marriage are aware that death might be a consequence of speaking out. As a result, very few women trust the authorities will protect them — time and time again, vulnerable women fall through the cracks of justice and intervention.
In 2008, the Home Affairs Committee debated the burden of public statements, but proposals for protecting potential victims were stopped short. Anyone has the right to appeal their visa if the UK Border Agency — now the UKVI — has rejected it. Despite consulting immigration lawyers and judges, the Committee decided that they were unable to protect identities “without compromising the fairness of the appeal system.” While foreign spouse visa applicants can have their applications blocked by their British wives, Home Affairs believed that husbands “deserve” to know how and why their visa has been rejected.
In a further sadistic turn, families who fear prosecution for coercing an underage relative into marriage have concocted an alternative method to legitimize the marriage in the eyes of the law: rape. Since both marriage parties must be over the age of 18 to legitimately apply for a spouse visa, arranging for the intended husband to rape the girl, in order to get her pregnant, is common in the case of minors. Families ensure the girl gives birth to her rapist’s child in the UK, and the low bar of requirements for a family visa means the husband can then enter the UK on the grounds that he has a child who is a British citizen. In other words, impregnating a British girl guarantees a UK visa since the victim has no opportunity to block it.
These women and girls are exploited first by their families, then by their “husbands,” then abandoned by the government and legal system.
Change is urgently needed to protect these women and girls. Destabilizing the patriarchy starts at home, as well as at the state level. Schools and local communities need to raise awareness, and the UK government needs to step up. Legislation and policy needs reform in order to allow victims to come forward safely, without facing the risk of further violence. Without revolutionary changes, forced marriages will continue to undermine women’s human rights and the fight against male violence, damaging the futures of girls in generations to come.
Olivia Bridge is a content writer for the Immigration Advice Service which is the leading organisation of UK immigration lawyers.