Anti-Social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Bill

Written evidence from Imkaan (ASB 30)

Imkaan is the only national Black, Minority Ethnic and Refugee (BME) second-tier organisation dedicated to working on violence against women and girls (VAWG). The Imkaan team has extensive experience of working around a range of issues including domestic and sexual violence, forced marriage and ‘honour-based’ violence.

Imkaan is a membership organisation, which represents the expertise and perspectives of frontline BMER women’s services working to prevent and address VAWG. Our work is delivered through research, strategic advocacy, accredited training packages, capacity building, consultancy, and sector development

Imkaan welcomes the government's commitment to addressing forced marriage, including the announcement that over £500,000 of funding will be made available over the next three years to support work in this important area. The signing of the Council of Europe Convention on Combating and Preventing Violence Against Women and Domestic Violence sends an important message that VAWG is both unacceptable and a priority in the UK. However, we remain concerned about the proposal to create a specific criminal offence on forced marriage. As is the case with any area of work, prosecution cannot work on its own and is not enough. We remain concerned that criminalisation of forced marriage would further drive the practice underground, potentially resulting in more girls and boys being removed to other countries without warning. The new legislation would need to run in parallel with other sources of support if women and girls are to come forward for help and get timely and appropriate assistance and advice.

Our consultation with 48 organisations and individuals highlighted the following key concerns:

1. A strong concern that a specific criminal offence will have limited and potential detrimental impact on women and girls. For instance, lower levels of reporting as children and young women will often not want to prosecute. Young women would prioritise safety and empowerment. There is a distinction between an adult taking criminal action against an intimate partner compared to a child taking significant family members to court that may lead to a prison sentence. Relationship breakdown with significant family members can be much more isolating, permanent and has a much more damaging and longer-term impact on young women, thereby affecting their health and wellbeing on a long-term basis, which potentially could have a much wider impact within society than intended. This especially is the case as victims are often under 18. Taking parents to court is understandably complex, emotionally fraught and difficult. Women often want to leave, want the choice to say no to a forced marriage and to access safety rather than criminalise their parents.

2. The current system fails victims largely in the area of support, i.e. civil remedies, and support to enable reporting to occur in the first place. Criminal sanctions in isolation are not sufficient to address the needs of women and girls. They need to be provided as part of a package of specialist support measures. Women are much more likely to engage with the criminal justice system if they are able to access information, on-going safe accommodation and emotional support from specialist women’s organisations. Therefore, resources would be far better utilised in sustaining and improving the infrastructure of support services given that existing organisations working in this area are facing increased demand at a time where their funding is being significantly reduced in the current economic downturn.

3. The introduction of legislation without the right level of grassroots voluntary sector support services in place is dangerous and raises women’s and girls’ expectations that they will have access to appropriate support. Imkaan's own report, The Missing Link (2011), produced for the Mayor of London points to inadequacies in many London boroughs, where women and girls at risk of, or going through a forced marriage cannot access the specialist support and advice they need from women’s organisations– as they simply do not exist in their area (See also our finding in Vital Statistics and Vital Statistics 2. All these reports can be found at www.imkaan.org.uk/resources).

4. Statutory professionals have an over-reliance on girls to come forward for help. This is particularly problematic as young women are less likely to define or disclose their experience as a ‘forced marriage’ particularly where the coercion from family members is more subtle and by virtue of their age less likely to access opportunities for getting help and advice from external agencies. Schools and other educational institutions have a key role to play yet are often not engaging on these issues as highlighted by our research The Missing Link (2011). Teachers should be equipped to identify and respond appropriately to girls at risk, yet they are not consistently trained to identify risk and respond appropriately.

5. Furthermore, despite well-established child protection policy in the UK, professionals often lack the confidence, skills and knowledge to utilise existing systems in cases of forced marriage. Whether the Bill will have any practical effect is likely to depend upon how effectively organisations concerned with child protection are able to identify children at risk and provide them with the protection and the practical and emotional support they need. Our own research- see para 3 above – has shown that specialist services, including vital support from specialist voluntary sector organisations for women and girls at risk of forced marriage are sparse. Furthermore, our concern in this area is also supported by the Office of the Children’s Commissioner for England’s A Child’s Rights Impact Assessment of the Anti-Social Behaviour, Crime & Policing Bill (Parts 1-6; Part 9 – see (http://www.childrenscommissioner.gov.uk/content/publications/content_67, accessed 2/7/13. As the Children’s Commissioner states, forced marriage involving children is best understood and addressed robustly as a safeguarding and child protection issue, and concerns about forced marriage would reach the threshold of ‘significant harm’ under the provisions of the Children Act 1989.In practice, there are many challenges to implementation of the law, including the complexities involved where a victim is expected to make claims against family members, and the fact that some forced marriage cases involving children ‘take place on the cusp of private and public law proceedings’. If forced marriage and other forms of harmful practice were better integrated within existing child protection policy and practice, (similar to other forms of child abuse and neglect) rates of disclosure would improve. More significantly, girls would not have to deal with the often traumatic and difficult prospect of going to court, as agencies would be in a much better position to intervene much earlier to prevent forced marriage.

6. The UK does have an obligation to create specific legislation to address forced marriage under the Council of Europe Convention on Preventing and Combating Violence Against Women and Domestic Violence. However, the implementation of the criminalisation of the forced marriage civil protection order breaches will enable the UK to fulfil its obligations under the convention and therefore there is no additional requirement to develop a specific offence. We support the view of the Children’s Commissioner for England in terms of a concern that the evidentiary threshold in criminal cases is higher than in civil cases, and securing convictions will be challenging in many cases, particularly those where coercion is a process which happens over a long period of time. After all, there is limited evidence on which to assess the likely impact on children of a creation of an offence of forced marriage. Where children are involved, forced marriage must be understood and addressed as an integral part of child protection policy and practice, and a range of laws already exist which make this possible (see para 5 above for details of the Children’s Commissioner’s report). Furthermore, victims of forced marriage are likely to experience coercion, threats and violence from multiple perpetrators, and multiple interested parties, including parents, siblings and wider community networks. It may be more difficult to gather the level of evidence required to prove the culpability of some individuals for prosecution.

7. Although we think that the current civil remedies and criminal sanctions are sufficient to prosecute perpetrators of forced marriage, there is a lack of understanding and awareness of existing legislation amongst professionals and the general public, and a strong misperception that there are no legal frameworks in place for addressing forced marriage.

8. Our Members felt that there are other ways of sending out a strong message on FM. If the Government implemented the criminalisation of breaches this would in itself provide an opportunity for sending out a strong message and awareness raising opportunity. Some members thought that a national awareness-raising campaign similar to the drink driving campaign would help to raise awareness and shift attitudes amongst the general public and professionals with a duty to respond. Furthermore, it should be noted that domestic violence in itself is not a crime; instead aspects of domestic violence have been criminalised. However, a strong message is increasingly sent across agencies and through the media that the UK has a zero tolerance approach to domestic violence and a similar approach should be adopted for forced marriage.

9. In order to ensure that women and girls affected by forced marriage are protected it is essential that the government prioritises early intervention and prevention, and that schools (including independent schools) are encouraged to work in partnership with voluntary sector specialists to adopt a whole-school approach to violence against women and girls. Furthermore, that the availability of specialist frontline support services with an expertise and history of working on these issues i.e. refuge, outreach and advice currently delivered primarily by BME women’s specialists are more readily available as these are likely to be the first contact for women and girls and the services they are most likely to access and trust. On-going support and resettlement is also vital to ensure that victims are able to access consistent support at points at which they are most vulnerable e.g. at the point of disclosure as well as the emotional support required to deal with the longer-term physical and emotional impact of forced marriage. Yet many of these services are facing deep cuts and are struggling to manage the increased demand for their services. It is critical that women and girls have access to a robust support package across the UK. Investment in improving multi-agency responses to women and girls affected by forced marriage as well as other forms of violence against women and girls would provide a much more effective strategy for tackling these issues than relying on enforcement measures alone.

July 2013

Please see (Annex – NOT PUBLISHED) for the full views of our members on the government’s proposal to criminalise forced marriage.

Prepared 5th July 2013