The Joint Committee on Human Rights' new report on 'Violence against women and girls' confirms that key to the fight against forced marriage and other forms of 'honour based' violence are schools, teachers and education. The Committee were tasked with examining the UK's progress towards ratifying the Istanbul Convention on preventing and combating violence against women and domestic violence. Although they found that the Government had made the legislative changes necessary to comply with the Convention, the report acknowledges that changes in practice and culture are still needed in order to properly tackle forced marriage and other examples of violence against women and girls.
'Forced marriage' is the act of using violence, threats, or any other form of coercion in order to force another into marriage, and has been a criminal offence in England and Wales since June 2014. It is a huge problem in the UK: between 2012-2013, the Forced Marriage Unit dealt with 1302 forced marriage cases involving 74 different countries. Many more suffer in silence, hidden away from society by their spouses and extended family.
Evidence shows that victims of forced marriage are at a much greater risk of physical, psychological and sexual abuse. Moreover, the suicide rate amongst those forced into marriage is significantly higher than the national average. Perhaps most disconcertingly, many of the victims are forced into marriage as children - 40% of the cases the FMU dealt with between 2012-2013 involved victims under the age of 17. A further 33% were university age: 18-21.
The Joint Committee's recommendations concerning honour based violence should be welcomed as a step towards aligning the response of frontline professionals with the tough stance the Government has taken through legislation. Indeed, those with experience of working with victims of forced marriage recognise that the education sector is vital to the prevention, protection and successful prosecution of forced marriage. It would appear that the Joint Committee agrees.
First, the Committee heard that for many children, their only opportunity to report any violence they have been exposed to is via a teacher they trust. One young person said they had reported their home situation to a teacher, but it was 'the wrong teacher'. The importance of swift, safe and proper responses to such disclosures cannot be overstated in relation to forced marriage. Victims, especially children, often have their lives and outside interactions tightly controlled by their extended family and community, even more so in the run up to and immediately after any marriage. Forced marriage organisations are firm proponents of the 'one chance' rule, that is - any professional who comes into contact with a potential victim of forced marriage may only have one chance to speak to them and one chance to save their life. Unfortunately, the Committee noted that the Minister for Women has outlined changes for the training and allocation of frontline social workers but no similar offering is being made to school teachers.
In terms of higher education, the Committee commended charity Karma Nirvana for their work with Derby College on forced marriage. The National Union of Students' survey on the issue revealed that only 14% of female and 20% of male respondents knew where to get help or advice on coercive marriage, clearly demonstrating that far more is needed from higher education establishments.
Second, although the Committee welcomed the Department for Education's commitment to provide guidance on education about consent, they recommended that this needs to 'go further' including issues such as forced marriage. For those who grow up in restrictive communities, it is all the more important that an external source is able to give them independent information on their rights, rather than out-dated and harmful notions of any 'responsibility' to put up with abuse rather than bringing shame on their families.
Until such guidance is published, the Committee held that the UK could not be deemed to be fulfilling its positive obligation to prevent and protect women and girls from violence under the Convention.
Third, the Committee recommended a standalone inquiry into the treatment of women in deeply patriarchal, structured communities who face significant language and cultural barriers to accessing the help they need. The Committee said 'we do not believe the Government has succeeded in reaching these women or tackling the cultures which do not treat women as equal to men'.
The combination of these recommendations is significant: if the UK is to maintain its position as a global leader in the fight to end violence against women and children, the Government needs to recognise that such violence comes in many different forms, at the hands of many different perpetrators. Teachers are vital - after all, they may be the only ones in a position to save that victim's life. A massive increase in awareness, proper training and a joined up approach from all frontline professionals is long overdue both to protect victims and to support prosecutions when they are brought. The fight has only just begun.