Why is forced marriage still getting a pass from the UK government?

Without drastic change to policy and legislation, girls in the UK will continue to suffer exploitation and sexual abuse through “forced marriage.”

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 I was withdrawn from my mainstream school and sent to an all-girls faith school: my mother told me that where I was going I didn’t need an education.”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.

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  • Tessa Anne

    Thank you for writing about this, Olivia, and thanks to FC for publishing. This is horrendous. I find it infuriating that authorities may not be interrogating these instances of forced marriage and rape because they fear being branded racist, and yet the result is that racial minority girls are the ones that suffer – surely that practical racism is of greater concern? It’s almost like these girls are dispensable to the broader goal of the authorities developing ‘good relationships’ with minority cultural/racial groups. And the idea that ignoring these rapes will be conducive to good relationships also rests on the assumption that most people in those minority groups are on board with the rape of girls in forced marriage. Now that is some racist shit.

  • Mexican American Lesbian

    Because you’re not allowed to criticize The Religion Of Peace ™. That’s why.

  • marv

    While coerced marriage can’t be condemned enough, the rejection of it alone seems to imply regular marriage is legitimate – somewhat like the bifurcation of prostitution into trafficked or sex work. The idea that consensual marriage is good obscures the unequal material conditions between men and women. The privatization of women in marriage causes it to appear as though sex classes don’t really exist. This makes it harder to organize against male power. Energy becomes diverted into fictitious “marriage interest” over other interests.

    Of all the manufactured identities and institutions reinforcing women’s subordinate position in patriarchy, marriage may be the most influential. Wedlock is pervasive, as old as prostitution, and socially celebrated. It has proven to be a winning strategy for male supremacy.

    • Safa

      “It has proven to be a winning strategy for male supremacy.” Exactly. Women who live in countries that do not have (not yet, anyway) guardianship laws need to stop getting married. It is one of forms of public protest that cannot be deemed “transphobic” or “hate speech.” I know societal pressure makes this difficult, but marriage makes women vulnerable as does having children. Another safe form of public protest is that women should refrain from entering into any financial contracts with men. The relationship may end but the debts demand to be paid.

    • ptittle

      Oh, good catch, marv!

  • Safa

    Marrying off young girls has been a tradition in many cultures throughout history. People who live in Anglo-Western countries are supposed to respect the traditions of others. To question such traditions is viewed as bigotry and racist. Women (of any race or religion) who were raised over several generations in modern Anglo-Western culture must keep quite any reservations they may have about a particular culture’s anti-female traditions. And let’s face it–most traditions are anti-female. Foot binding, veiling, genital mutilation, menstrual huts, fetal gynocide, starvation and neglect of female children, female illiteracy, virginity obsession, vaginal cleanliness, all forms of marriage rites–this list goes on.

    Women are not valued. We are a liability to our families. A man position in society is based on how and by whom his female relatives’ vaginas are penetrated. Nazreen said her “mother was the main perpetrator,” but her mother was only treating her daughter the way she herself was treated by her mother, and so on. As Mary Daly has often pointed out, patriarchy always gets women to carry out the dirty work of abusing other women, especially breaking the mother/daughter bond. I bet Nazreen’s father probably was trying to settle a debt in exchange for his daughter. She is just a commodity. When you think about it, it is amazing Nazreen made it to 13. If she had gone to Afghanistan, she certainly wouldn’t have made it to 15. Thanks to the US military, Afghanistan is a war zone. There is no medical care and violence against females is another popular cultural tradition.

    Rulers (there are not leaders anymore) of Anglo-Western countries must decide what kind of society they want with mass migration increasing. Is it good for business and firm control over the masses to continue to treat females like shit? Or is another approach better. You can change laws, but changing the feelings and beliefs of people is much harder.

    • ptittle

      Yes, good point. Respect my tradition = respect my opinion = show some tolerance = don’t be so judgmental = LET ME DO WHATEVER THE HELL I WANT.

  • Blazing Fire

    Yeah, but it is not so much being rewarded for marriage as being punished & slandered for singledom..

    • Maria Gatti

      Marriage has declined precipitously over a relatively short time here in Québec, when women rebelled from the rule of “Mother Church” (another female image disguising patriarchal rule). And that is also the case in many other societies.

      However, forced marriage, often of girls or very young women, with no social support whatsoever, is the paroxysm of this patriarchal control, in a sense combining the worst aspects of marriage and of prostitution.

  • Mexican American Lesbian

    You are correct, except, in the UK, criticizing The Religion Of Peace ™ is verboten because taqiyya.

  • acommentator

    “Neither one has been around “forever.” In the grand scheme of human existence, both are recent inventions.”

    I am curious for your source for this (as to marriage). It may not be absolutely universal, but my understanding is that with respect to cultures we actually know something about, the great majority have some form of marriage.

  • ptittle

    You know, most of us (women) would feel bad about having to force someone to do something, perhaps even, in this case, asking the question ‘What does it say about me that I have to force a man to be my husband, that I can’t get a husband unless I force a man into marriage with me?’

    But men? This is just more proof that they ENJOY forcing others to do what they want. Something is seriously wrong with the human male. By nature and/or nurture, they’re defective.

  • ptittle

    Yup. One more way they’ve legitimized, paved the way for, rewarded rape.