Saturday, 9 June 2012
£500,000 over three years? That's not commitment
On Monday at the Bristol Feminist Network ‘Where are the Women’ event, my friend Shabana spoke about her work setting up the Sky Project (http://www.skyproject.org.uk/), a charity dedicated to working with young women affected by forced marriage. She said how it was all of our responsibilities to tackle and raise awareness of forced marriage, it isn’t a cultural issue, but a women’s issue and a human rights issue. We all need to speak out about all the issues that impact on women’s safety, right to freedom and right to bodily autonomy. So I’m speaking out about it, in my own small way, here.
After a long period of consultation, the government yesterday announced that it would make forced marriage officially a criminal offence yesterday, along with a pledge of commitment to tackling the causes of the crime.
The Guardian reported that last year the forced marriage unit dealt with nearly 1500 cases, 600 this year (http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2012/jun/08/forced-marriage-criminal-offence-david-cameron). It’s difficult of course to know how many people are forced into marriage each year in the UK - the estimated number is believed to be between 5,000 – 8,000. Forced marriage affects women and men, but the majority of the victims are women – 78% in fact (http://www.fco.gov.uk/en/travel-and-living-abroad/when-things-go-wrong/forced-marriage). According to 2010 statistics, a third of victims referred to the forced marriage unit were under 18 (http://www.pickledpolitics.com/archives/11926).
There has been a lot of debate about whether or not forced marriage should be categorised as a criminal offence, and both sides of the debate speak a lot of sense. The pro side argue that by making forced marriage a criminal offence, a strong message is sent out to perpetrators that what they are doing is wrong, and that if they do force someone into marriage they will be punished with a prison sentence. That message is important and powerful. It brooks no argument and it refuses to let anyone off the hook. The Iranian and Kurdish Women’s Rights Association, quoted in yesterday’s Guardian, praised the move, arguing that it would hold perpetrators to account and empower women with the knowledge that what is happening to them is wrong.
The flipside of the argument is that criminalisation will have a detrimental impact on levels of reporting and force the issue underground. As Imkaan explain in their Myths and Realities of Forced Marriage post (http://imkaan.tumblr.com/post/20551683898/forced-marriage-myths-and-realities), legislation doesn’t stop an offence happening, and without work to change attitudes, a law which puts prosecution in place without a wider plan of education to change attitudes won’t have the desired impact on protecting young women from a gross violation of their human rights. The Ashiana Network – the only refuge dedicated to working with survivors of forced marriage – asked the 20 women in their refuges what they thought of criminalisation. Seven believed that it would raise awareness within affected communities, but 19 out of 20 said they would not have come forward if forced marriage was a criminal offence in case it meant their parents went to prison. Many of the women also feared that reporting would leave them ostracised by their community and left vulnerable. All together it shows that this is not a straightforward issue. (https://theguardian/commentisfree/2012/apr/09/forced-marriages-criminalising).
Many of the elements of forced marriage – such as abduction, imprisonment and rape – are already criminal offences. So there is an argument that perpetrators can and should be prosecuted on those grounds, rather than through a separate criminal offence. Currently those who press charges against their families do so through the family courts, assured that parents won’t be prosecuted before they make their statement. All this could allow for forced marriage to be an aggravating factor in a criminal case, rather than the criminal offence itself.
I don’t know what the right answer is. I understand the arguments for criminalisation as this does send a message. But I also have grave concerns that once again the government has held a consultation, disliked what women’s groups and experts on women’s rights have had to say, and done what they wanted to. If the women who work on the ground on this issue every day are telling you something, then listen to them. Hear their truths and hear their reasons. They know what young women need and what young women want, far more than, as one tweeter put it to me, 23 millionaires sitting in cabinet (most of whom, in case we needed reminding, are men). Just as with the consultation on reform to family courts, which found that there was no bias towards women and that the secondary care giver was almost always allowed access, the government show signs of hearing what they want to believe, not to women’s voices.
As I say, I don’t know the answer. I recognise both arguments, and believe very strongly that we listen to the voices of survivors, and those who work with survivors. And of course, not all these voices agree, as the links I have shared above clearly show.
To support the new law, the government have promised £500,000 over three years to tackle the causes of forced marriage, through education particularly.
And this is when alarm bells started ringing for me. £500,000? Over three years? To tackle a crime against women that is such a huge violation of their human rights? Is this what the government’s commitment to ending violence against women and girls looks like?
I have real concerns that once again, this move by the government is not much more than a statement with no plans behind it. Froth, but no beer. It’s all very well making something a criminal offence. But if you are not going to invest time and money into making the crime stop, if you are not going to invest real money and time into education, into refuges, into support networks and groups for the young women affected, then frankly change isn’t going to happen just like that. We already know the violence against women and girls sector is facing a crisis of funding. We need to see proper commitment.
Because otherwise we’ll end up where we are with FGM – where there have been zero convictions since the law against the practise was passed, where the ministerial position to tackle FGM has been cut and where the work of supporting and helping young women is split between different agencies and charities, and varies wildly depending on postcode. Where I live in Bristol we have some excellent work happening to tackle FGM – with healthcare, social and education services working together in partnership with the community and charities to affect change. But that is certainly not the case everywhere. And that is the case here because of the incredible work of a few people making change happen.
£500,000 over three years isn’t a lot of money when we estimate 8,000 women and men are affected every year. The intentions might be good, but the commitment seems to be missing. If the government are really serious about stopping violence against women and girls, they need to stop talking the talk, and start investing money and time into the sector that can make it stop.
The above link has info to various organisations working with survivors of forced marriage and other types of gender based violence.