Last week there was a mixed reception to the news that Forced Marriage had become a criminal offence, carrying a potential punishment of seven years in prison
In particular, I was surprised and concerned Lancashire’s Assistant Police and Crime Commissioner Saima Afzal declared she did not see a need to criminalise forced marriage and was concerned about the impact of this move.
One of her concerns implied that now FM was a criminal offence, there would be a risk the authorities would wait for an offence to happen rather than intervening at an earlier stage. I disagree with and felt a more supportive line should have been given about important legislation which has received Royal Assent. It has been estimated more than 5,000 people are forced into marriage each year in the UK and about one third of that number relates to young teenage girls.
In 2012, the Forced Marriage Unit received about 400 reports between June and August. Indeed, the greatest risk for victims is during the summer holiday period, when girls are taken on what is believed to be a family holiday and are then coerced into a subservient marriage.
This new legislation provides clarity that forcing someone into a marriage is a serious criminal offence rather than a cultural misunderstanding. Now FM is a criminal offence, it is also becomes an offence for anybody who aids, abets, counsels, procures or conspires to commit that offence.
It gives the authorities greater powers to investigate, including powers of arrest and search.
The thoughtful use of these powers will complement preventative and early intervention efforts being made to reduce the issue of FM.
The simple message should be that FM is wrong, it is a serious criminal offence and it should stop. Any parent, relative or other person taking part in this activity is a criminal and any person reporting such conduct is doing the right thing.
While I accept Ms Afzal has detailed knowledge on this subject and is committed to the proactive safeguarding of victims, I am uneasy with the message she gave on this subject.
Forced marriage should be treated no differently than domestic violence or inter familial sexual abuse.
Any suggestion that members of some communities are being placated due to political sensitivities should be avoided: forced marriage is simply unacceptable.