Too many young people are still being forced to marry against their will.
With so many unexpected events, 2011 will not be a year that I will easily forget. From the SNP landslide to the Arab Spring. Phone-hacking scandals to the death of Osama Bin Laden. Not one royal wedding, but two. Earthquakes, tsunamis - we’ve seen it all this year, haven’t we? Or have we.
I was at an event recently sitting with a group of women, talking about our year, when a 19-year-old girl very humbly said that she was “just glad to be home”.
I asked where she had been and she went on to tell us that halfway through her holiday last year, she was forced to marry a man she had never met, a man to whom she later found out that she’d been "promised" to since birth.
The majority of cases of forced marriage reported to date in the UK involve South Asian families. This is partly a reflection of the fact that there is a large, established South Asian population in the UK.
However, it is clear that forced marriage is not solely a South Asian problem and there have been cases involving families from East Asia, the Middle East, Europe and Africa. Some forced marriages take place in the UK with no overseas element, while others involve a prospective partner coming from overseas, or a British citizen being sent abroad.
In England, there are plans to consult on criminalising forced marriage. In Scotland we are one step ahead and The Forced Marriage (Protection and Jurisdiction) (Scotland) Act 2011, passed by the Scottish Parliament in March, goes further than the rest of the UK.
Courts can issue protection orders specifically tailored to a victim's needs, for example by ensuring they are taken to a place of safety or by helping those in danger of being taken abroad for marriage.
Breaching such an order is a criminal offence, punishable by a fine, a two-year prison sentence or both.
This new law protecting people from being married against their will which has recently come into effect in Scotland is one of the key events which I’ll remember of 2011. That Scotland sent out a clear message to communities across the country – that forcing someone to do anything against their will, by violence or by coercion, is inhumane and unacceptable and is now against the law.
We mustn’t get confused between forced marriage and arranged marriages. An arranged marriage is when two families come together and they discuss the marriage with the two people involved. The parents then give the young couple the choice on whether they want to get married or not. The two are allowed to go on dates and get to know one another.
They are not rushed into make their final decision. I guess many of us would call it an introductory service provided by parents and the wider family network. In a forced marriage, the people getting married do not have any choice.
The force isn’t necessarily physical, it’s more often emotional.
And on that note, I am proud to be living in a country where forced marriage has no place. Some think forced marriage is a rare practice; but the government estimates up to 8,000 cases a year in the UK.
Some assume forced marriage affects only adults; but figures show that more than half are under 16 and some are as young as 8. Some think the victims are solely women, but 14% of complainants are actually men.
We now need to tackle the New Year with new initiatives. We must increase the awareness of forced marriages; we must ensure that survivors of forced marriages in Scotland are receiving effective, appropriate, culturally and faith sensitive support from organisations and that we are working together as a cohesive society to dispel myths and stereotypes.
This is not a cultural practice or what is supposedly condoned by certain religions - forced marriage is against the teachings of any religion or any civilised society.
I believe that this is a generational issue and that we need to secure the support of community and faith leaders, whom our elders will listen to, and ask them to act as advocates within the community to strengthen the message that forced marriage is unacceptable by any religion.
For me, it's not enough to say, as some do, that the law currently protects people from forced marriage because it criminalises its components – like kidnapping, assault and false imprisonment. It's not enough to say we have a Forced Marriage Unit that provides invaluable protection for victims.
We have to go further.
Victims are told it is through duty that they should marry – that it will bring shame upon their family if they do not acquiesce. It is our duty to show that this is wrong – and it is our society's shame if we do not criminalise its perpetrators.
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