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I will address some of those concerns later, but want to share with the House some of the research into the enormity of the problem. The research is international but anyone reading it cannot fail to see that many of the countries affected have significant communities residing here in the United Kingdom. It is therefore extremely relevant to our domestic framework.
In November 2006, the United Nations Population Fund highlighted a series of studies to draw attention to the issue of coercion and violence against women. In UNFPAs findings, 82 million girls between the ages of 10 and 17 living in developing countries will be married before their 18th birthday. In some countries, half of all girls under 18 are already married. To name a few countries where girls under 18 were married, in Nigeria, 55 per cent were married under 18, in Bangladesh, it was 65 per cent, in India, it was 50 per cent, and in Ethiopia it was 49 per cent.
Although the age at which women are married is generally increasing, it is not uncommon to find girls married before the age of 15. According to UNFPA, in Ethiopia and some parts of west Africa, some girls get married as early as the age of seven. In Bangladesh, 45 per cent were married at age 15. In rural India, 25 per cent of women surveyed between the ages of 25 and 29 were married before their 13th birthday.
What I am trying to demonstrate is that where you have such widespread cultural practice, it is inevitable that values held by British communities from those countries will reflect similar patterns of thinking. Speaking about one community that I know well, the Pakistani community, I know that some sections of my community do not really see the distinction between consent under duress and consent freely given. The very prevalence of obedience as an overarching filial duty makes the distinction negligible. In fact, given the age at which consent is sometimes sought when a girl is promised by her parents, the young person would probably be unable to give free consent, as her knowledge of the implications for her well-being, sexual and reproductive health and her own rights would be such that she could not possibly be deemed to have given informed consent.
The Pakistan Human Rights Commission, a well respected independent body, highlighted some of the issues in a report issued in 2004. It cited a recent court case in which a 12 year-old girl was recovered from her husband. She was found to have broken bones and had routinely been given electric shocks. The husband did not deny the charges, but sought to justify them on the ground that she had run away from his house and that her father had agreed with the punishment meted out to her. In another instance, a Pakistani court refused to intervene in the case of a 13 year-old because it could not proceed against a legally wedded spouse.
Unfortunately, even when women in Pakistan are sufficiently courageous to seek police intervention, they are routinely told to obey their husbands and advised by the police that men have the right to apply physical force against wayward or rebellious women. Furthermore, most of those women suffer acute poverty if they are turned out from their parental or matrimonial home. Refuges and shelters are few and far between. So although the law technically exists in Pakistan to protect women from those abuses, cultural practice is condoned and courts are reluctant to take on cases where religious belief might be confused with cultural practice. The more reactionary political parties are prone to bring out their supporters by the thousands to protest against a brave court's ruling.
I use those illustrations to argue, first, that the practice of coercion to marry women off without their consent is widespread across certain countries and that those communities in Britain have subscribed and currently subscribe to some of those values. The fact that several hundred cases per year are assisted by the Forced Marriage Unit speaks for itself. Secondly, even if it were extremely rare in the UK, we could do much in terms of international leadership by setting an example through making the Bill law. It would send a powerful signal that we intend to stand up for young people's human rights across all our communities.
I turn to whether bringing in the legislation would drive this problem underground or put young people into an invidious position vis-Ã -vis their families. I know that many in my community feel that this would
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My noble friend Lord Lester has spoken of the pressures of culture: I will go further. I agree that cultural diversity is to be celebrated and that pluralism of values, with the requisite tolerance that must accompany them, is perfectly valid. However, the state has a duty to all its citizens that overrides value pluralismthe duty of non-discrimination. Where a problem is relevant only to certain groups, it still has a duty to uphold their human rights and to accord them the protection of law. If it failed to do so it would be engaging not in value pluralism, but in cultural relativism. To quote the provocative phrase used by the American sociologist, Steven Lukes:
In my community, there is no doubt among Muslim scholars that marriage is a contract where free consent must be given, a point to which the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Manchester has already alluded. There is no argument as to the religious invalidity of this practice, yet there seems to be much reluctance comprehensively to eradicate the cultural sentiment that underpins it.
We keep hoping that education, support and other soft-touch measures will help to change things. I would argue that with each young persons life that is blighted, and where physical and mental harm are so profound, we in the communities most acutely affected now need to have the courage to argue the case for legal measures within our own people. It is to us that the job of education and leadership also falls. To wait in hope that incremental change will come is to let down our young people. I am proud that my noble friend Lord Lester has challenged us to rise to this task.
Baroness D'Souza: My Lords, I am delighted to support this Bill and congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Lester, and his colleagues on nurturing this important legislation through to Second Reading. Long may the debate continue and may it result in a law to uphold the dignity, autonomy and freedom of women. Forced marriage includes many different violations against women and therefore transgresses international laws and customary norms. The UK has ratified all the main human rights treaties and is the guarantor of women's rights, so there really should not be any objection to the proposed legislation. The Government should welcome it as a logical outcome to earlier consultations during the passage of the Domestic Violence, Crime and Victims Act 2004 when it was agreed, for reasons already expounded, that forced marriage should not be subject to criminal sanctions. In this context, it is disappointing to see
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Forced marriage, especially if it involves abduction, is a violation of women's fundamental rights in that it is an act of violence against a woman. The Southall Black Sisters, sponsors of this Bill, note that forced marriage necessarily includes emotional blackmail, assault, harassment, abduction, coercion and, if the woman refuses, possible social ostracism for her family. International law dictates that marriage should take place only with the clear consent of both people. The key international instruments include Article 10 of the UN International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights; Article 16 of the UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) is unequivocal. It states:
The treaty recognises that violence against women encompasses physical, sexual and psychological violence occurring in the family, including battering, sexual abuse of female children, dowry related marriages, marital rape, female genital mutilation and other traditional practices harmful to women. It also refers to physical, sexual and psychological violence perpetrated or condoned by the state wherever it occurs. The convention sets out the obligations of states to provide remedies for violation of womens rights and in the exercise of due diligence in investigating and prosecuting such abuses.
Article 1 of the UN Convention on Consent to Marriage, Minimum Age for Marriage and Registration of Marriages enjoins that no marriage should be entered into without the free consent of both parties and that such consent must be expressed by them in person after due publicity and in the presence of a competent authority. The former UN special rapporteur on violence against women, Radhika Coomaraswamy, wrote in her first report:
States therefore are under a positive duty to prevent, investigate and punish crimes associated with violence against women. She added that the gender specific nature of domestic violence requires that domestic violence be classified and treated as a human rights concern rather than a domestic criminal justice concern.
This array of international law and opinion should at once banish any idea that the practice of forced marriage is either too widely accepted among certain communities or too entrenched to be eradicated. It must by law be eradicated and there should be no impunity for those who perpetrate it. Multiculturalism does not mean accepting the unacceptable. Traditional practices that reflect and celebrate cultural diversity are warmly welcomed; abuse of women is not. If victims of forced marriage cannot have recourse to the law, to whom can they turn?
Minority protection with respect to Islam and religious freedom can only be had at the cost of the equal rights of women and ultimately only serves to perpetuate and reinforce obsolete, archaic, patriarchal structures.
She asserts that somehow we have all slipped into an almost infinite tolerance of abuses that oppress women and into forgetting that human rights are universal and unconditional. Girls are exempted from swimming, field trips and sex education in the name of cultural norms. Coeducation is undermined and we may find ourselves in danger of creating parallel societies while at the same time demanding respect for women. The view that minorities should be left in peace to integrate if and when they wish, and of their own free will, is of course desirable. But surely this must not mean condoning the abuse of women. Can we adhere to the policy of non-integration and thereby avert our eyes from the brutal practices of female genital mutilation, forced marriage and domestic violence? Has it become too dangerous for the majority society to support the reform process? I hope not.
Lord Ahmed: My Lords, I, too, thank the noble Lord, Lord Lester of Herne Hill, for introducing this Bill. He has a distinguished career as an international jurist and his expertise on race relations, equality and human rights is well respected. He is the most qualified person to introduce this Bill, which I am delighted to support. It gives us a real opportunity to discuss a very serious social evil and to try to stop this practice.
Seven years ago, the Government said that even one forced marriage is one too many. That applies even today because forced marriages continue to take place. I will work with colleagues to amend the Bill as it goes through your Lordships House to make it more effective legislation. I agree with the Childrens Rights Alliance for England that forced marriage is an abuse of human rights, and a form of domestic violence and child abuse. On many occasions, wonderful quotes can be misunderstood. I want to say again as a Muslim what has already been said today: no religionChristianity, Judaism, Hinduism, Sikhism or Islamcondones this practice. In fact, they condemn it. And yet we have heard quoted Home Office figures showing 300 cases, and I am sure that many more are not reported.
The Bill sends a signal to the perpetrators of this heinous crime that such evil practices must stop. Seven years ago I had the pleasure of working with my noble friend Lady Uddin and the noble Lord, Lord Dholakia, on the working group, which heard from organisations such as Southall Black Sisters and many others which I do not have the time to list. The Government were right to say at the time that cultural sensitivity is no excuse for moral blindness, and we should continue to say it. But we need to make sure
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Baroness Falkner of Margravine: My Lords, I want to put a question to the noble Lord, Lord Ahmed. While it may well be true that certain sections of the media take our words and use them to be sensational or to demoniseas he puts ita certain community, is he saying that in difficult cases we should not raise difficult issues and that we must censor ourselves in that regard in order not to upset the media?
Lord Ahmed: Absolutely not, and that is the point I am making, my Lords. We have to be proactive. That is why we condemn the practice of forced marriage and why we want to make sure that there is a law to protect people from it. But figures published by the British Crime Survey yesterday show that 50,000 women alleged that they had been raped, but only 1,000 people were convicted or their cases went to court. The crime rate is running at 2.4 million, but that does not mean that the entire British community is demonised. Because there are 50,000 rapes does not mean that we are all blamed. The point I am making is that certain sections of the media will point the finger at the Asian community. They will find a woman from a Pakistani background and they will target the Pakistani community. That is why it is important for people like myself, the noble Baroness, Lady Falkner, the noble Lord, Lord Sheikh, and my noble friend Lady Uddin to stand up here and condemn the practice.
In fact, I want to go even further. I would encourage Asian and ethnic minority communities to arrange marriages in this country rather than bring people in from abroad where there is no compatibility. In fact I know of so many cases where a marriage takes place and for the next two years the boy or man who has come from abroad will do everything. After two years there will be a baby from the marriage. But then suddenly there is a break-up once the man has secured his citizenship or right to stay in this country. What happens then? He goes for a divorce and he brings over another bride from India, Pakistan or Bangladesh. This means that the community continues to go backwards rather than move forwards.
Another practice is that of bringing young women over to this country. Parents want to organise
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Lord Taylor of Holbeach: My Lords, I had not originally intended to speak in this debate. I well know that the House admires and respects knowledge and experience, and is less tolerant of ignorance, but I hope noble Lords will accept my wish to support the Bill vocally. My noble friend Lady Verma has encouraged me to do so. She cannot be in her place today as she is in India accompanying her husband, who is receiving an award. Noble Lords who know her will know that she remains a strong supporter of the Bill, and I share her enthusiasm.
I thank the noble Lord, Lord Lester of Herne Hill, for his commitment and determination in bringing forward the Bill. It is an example of just the sort of legislation, both in subject matter and style, which demonstrates the value of this House. He has constructed and presented his Bill with great skill. We appear to be of one mind, and I hope that the Government will be similarly in step with the feelings of the House. Ten days ago I was able to attend the meeting organised by the noble Lord. It was a significant experience to listen to Jasvinder Sanghera, to hear of the great distress that she had undergone, and to learn from others the extent of the problem. The Forced Marriage Unit is seeing between 250 and 300 cases per year, which may be just the tip of the iceberg. Clearly it is doing a significant job, but the figures point up the need to bring this profound abuse of individual freedom and happiness within the scope of the law.
I also see the reason for steering away from criminalising those involved. All family matters are difficult enough without the inevitable insensitivity that is represented by criminal investigation and prosecution. The Bill quite rightly works to its end through civil protection and the creation of civil wrong. This was reinforced by my companions at a Burns Night dinner, a married couple, both British Asians. She is a Hindu born in Pakistan and her husband is an Anglo-Pakistani Muslim. When I told them about todays business, they explained that there is a world of difference between arranged and forced marriages. That point was made in what I think the House will consider to have been a very thoughtful and excellent speech by my noble friend Lord Sheikh. Forced marriages are often the consequence of ignorance and social pressures. While the consequences of coercion in the form of psychological and physical
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I have a question which I hope the noble Lord, Lord Lester, will be able to answer in his summing up. It concerns the scope of the Bill, a point he addressed in his opening remarks. The Bill as it stands extends only to England and Wales, but I hope that he has plans to work with others to see that it is extended to apply throughout the United Kingdom. There are dangers that the parties may flee to Scotland, for example. What redress, if any, does a British citizen have if they are taken to the Asian sub-continentwhether willingly or notand the visit turns out to be engineered for a forced marriage there?
I hope that the Government will give the Bill time enough, in this House and in the other place, to be enacted into law. They have been generous with their time today. It will be to their credit, as well as to the credit of the noble Lord, if this is so, and many people will have reason to be grateful.
Baroness Greengross: My Lords, I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Lester, on introducing a very important Bill and on his typically humane approach to this issue, which allows for a civil remedy and avoids inflaming by criminal proceedings an already emotionally charged situation.
In my very brief remarks I want to concentrate on the impact on young livesin extreme cases, as we have heard, of people as young as 12 or 13of being taken out of the UK to another country with which they are very unfamiliar, under the pretext of a normal family visit, only to find that they are expected to marry. Family members other than parents often, sadly, collude in this deception and coercion. What a dreadful betrayal of trust; what intolerable pressure to place on adolescents when they are coming to terms with adulthood and their own identity. We can scarcely be surprised when what follows is so often isolation, depression, domestic violence, self-harm and even death.
In the UK we can celebrate, justly, great advances in laws on equality and human rights and institutions designed to uphold and promote these values. I declare an interest as a member of the newly established Commission for Equality and Human Rights. Not only do forced marriages breach the most fundamental human rights, but they are overwhelmingly an assault against the rights of young women. The weight of expectation is entirely on such young women to satisfy what are still seen as traditional concepts of honour in certain communities, although more mundane and even mercenary considerations can also lie behind the parents choice of a marriage partner.
These inequalities and pressures and the very idea that a familys honour resides in the conduct of its daughters alone can ultimately result in honour killings. Thankfully, these are rare and not necessarily the outcome of forced marriages. But the two abuses grow from the same beliefs, and it is those beliefs that
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