Forced marriage as modern slavery

15 February 2022


Forced marriage as modern slavery

Reported by Ryan Francis, PhD Student at UCL, Affiliate Student at Downing College, Cambridge

As part of the Centre for Science and Policy’s (CSaP) Future Leaders Fellows seminar series, Dr Helen McCabe, Associate Professor in Political Theory, University of Nottingham, discussed her research on forced marriage as modern slavery.

The Future Leaders Fellows seminar series is an initiative hosted by CSaP that spans six weeks. The purpose of the programme is to proliferate bilateral engagement between cutting edge research and public policy. Throughout the series, researchers from the UKRI present their work and discuss with government officials and prominent members of the policy community.

Dr McCabe began her talk by defining exactly what is meant by a forced marriage – which is one to which at least one of the parties did not give their full and free consent. This means that all child marriages are forced marriage because children lack the capacity to give their free and full consent. She explained that forced marriages ought not to be confused with arranged marriages, as in arranged marriages both parties give consent to the union.

The classification of a forced marriage appears to be clear cut; however, the age of consent differs internationally and even within the home nations. In England, Wales, and Northern Ireland a person can marry at the age of 16, but only with their parents’ consent. In Scotland however, a person can marry at the age of 16 without needing parental consent.

Dr McCabe explained that calls to both the Forced Marriage Unit (FMU) and the national helpline for forced marriage and honour based abuse (run by Karma Nirvana) come from all over the UK, but a higher volume of calls, in most recent years, come from London, the North West, the South East, Yorkshire and Humberside, and the West Midlands. She said there can be some assumptions that only people from Muslim and/or from South-Asian communities are at risk, but these are mistaken: victims come from all communities in the UK, from all religious backgrounds and ethnicities. That said, Dr McCabe highlights that a higher volume of calls received by the FMU (and Karma Nirvana) are from areas of the UK with greater numbers of Black and minority-ethnic communities. For cases outside the UK, the FMU reports the highest case-numbers with connections to Pakistan, India, Bangladesh, Somalia, Afghanistan, Iraq, and Romania.

An important point Dr McCabe notes is that it should not be forgotten that there are male victims of forced marriage. She however explains that forced marriage fits within the Violence Against Women and Girls agenda, given the evidently gendered nature of the crime. She suggests that it should also be part of the Domestic Violence agenda given that people are – in most cases – forced to marry by their parents or other family members.

According to Dr McCabe, four criminals have been convicted of forced marriage offences since legislation was introduced in 2014; these instances were in 2014 and 2015. She explains that the police and Crown Prosecution Service attribute a low prosecution and conviction rate partly due to victims and witnesses not coming forward to provide evidence and report crimes. It is believed that much more can be done to help witnesses and those at risk to come forward; insights, for instance, could be learned from the victims of rape and sexual harassment or other examples of violence against women and girls.

“There's a very low prosecution and conviction rate for forced marriage, there have been three successful prosecutions since legislation was introduced in 2014.”

A participant proposed that to attain higher rates of reporting the police and crime prosecution services must place more focus upon the individual. They highlighted that reporting can indeed trigger violent and harmful retaliation from those incriminated persons, usually family members. Thus, to preserve anonymity and to ensure safety, asking victims to report a crime is synonymous with asking them to step away from their entire lives. Consequently, a better quality of life can often be achieved by begrudgingly going through with marriage. It was strongly argued that more must be done to ensure that one’s quality of life, post-prosecution, leads to a better quality of life for victims. Another participant then proposed what is needed is a more social approach where: schools, sports clubs, local government, places of worship, social services, and healthcare professionals all report back to the policy to aid their pursuits of perpetrators. Dr McCabe’s research is ongoing, and she hope that her findings will inform policy and legislation to combat this issue.

Image Credit: photo nic on Unsplash

Ryan Francis

Centre for Science and Policy, University of Cambridge

Dr Helen McCabe

University of Nottingham