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Forced marriage app – treating the cause or the symptoms?

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Originally published for The Backbencher on 23/12/12

 

This week, the Freedom Charity, together with the Metropolitan Police, launched a new smartphone app to help young people who may be at risk of being forced into marriage. The Freedom app, we are told, provides young victims with essential access to help and all the information they may need on the issue at the touch of a button.  Detective Chief Superintendent Reg Hooke, of the Met’s child abuse investigation command, said: “We wanted to produce something that would empower young people by giving them advice and information”.

Certainly, the problem of forced marriages is not going away. In 2011, there were 1,468 instances where the Forced Marriage Unit gave advice or support related to a possible forced marriage. But statistics are not always reliable. I know of at least a dozen people who were forced into marriage – yet they will not be counted in those statistics. Why? Because they did not tell anyone.

The problem with this app though is that, not only is it limited to those with smartphones, but also, if the victims of forced marriage are taken abroad, as many are, and their telephones (assuming they have a smartphone) are confiscated from them, how are they going to access the app?

Further to this, I’ve come across several people who, before going to Bangladesh or Pakistan, gave their friends in the UK copies of their passports and contact numbers to give to the police in case such a thing were to happen to them. So it is not that victims are necessarily unaware of who to talk to or who to contact, but rather their own reluctance to come forward to report that they are being forced into marriage. Those that do report it already know who they can contact. In this respect, the app does not seem to do anything new.

ForcedMarriage1  Should schools do more? Karma Nirvana, a charity that supports victims and survivors of forced marriage and honour based abuse, seem to think so. They received a letter from a teacher who teaches in a school in England. This teacher met Jasvinder Sanghera at the NUT conference stall and was encouraged to display our Helpline poster. This lasted 24 hours as within this time the Head teacher tore them all down and the teacher was called to her office and told they must not be displayed as she did not wish to ‘upset Muslim parents.’

I’m sorry but what does cultural sensitivities have to do with breaking the law and violating human rights? ‘Cultural sensitivities’ means, for example, being aware of not serving pork to a Muslim person or beef to a Hindu, not reminding parents that forcing a child into a marriage is against the law and a violation of human rights! This strange notion of not wanting to offend ‘cultural sensitivities’ is downright offensive in itself.

‘Honour’ and ‘Shame’

Asian and middle eastern women in the UK have to cope with conflicting roles and living two lives to maintain their cultural identity but survive in the dominant society. I’ll be perfectly honest here – there are certain things that even I cannot do, (or will not do) because I have been brought up with this notion that anything that goes against certain traditions and customs will bring shame and dishonour upon my family.

Admittedly, it is changing in my generation, and it is slowly dying out, and I could not care less what the ‘community’ say. This ‘community’ who, by the way, consist of a group of busybodies who take it upon themselves to know what everyone is up to in order to snitch on them to their families, while conveniently forgetting the fact that their own child is hardly perfect.

But every family worries what the ‘community’ will say, so because of this, even I have to take into consideration of how my family would feel of being gossiped about. It is still there in the back of my mind that I must do whatever is necessary not to bring shame on them. This can range from the more serious (marrying outside one’s ethnicity) to something so trivial (socialising in the evenings), and I’m certain that this is not just something I go through.

Victim of forced marriage  It is such a heavy burden to place on one individual, being reminded on a regular basis that they must not bring ‘shame’ on the family, that they are being watched all the time by members of the community to ensure they do not transgress.  It is something you cannot truly understand until you have been through it yourself.

One person, who is dear to me, was forced into a marriage, and almost escaped on his wedding day until he was caught by a relative and told to come back. “This isn’t right,” he was told. “Just come back, it will be fine, you’ll see.”  He had so much potential, so much he would have achieved in his life, but was never given the chance. He is a shell of his former self. But if that has taught him one thing, it is that he would never put his own children, nieces or nephews through the same thing.

A friend of mine was forced into marrying her cousin from Pakistan. She was not threatened with violence, or taken to Pakistan against her will. Rather, her own mother told her that if she did not marry this boy, she would kill herself. And so she obliged. Emotional blackmail is a powerful weapon.

She could have reported the incident to the police, you may be thinking, but what child wants to see his or her parents behind bars? All those gossiping busybodies pointing fingers and speaking in hushed tones as they walk by, “there goes that shameful girl/boy who reported her/his parents to the police”. No matter what the parent does to the child, only a handful of victims would want their parents to suffer. And so they suffer in silence instead.

This is what many organisations, including the police, miss out. It is not a case of threatening a girl or boy with violence. Most of the time it is done with emotional blackmail, as mentioned in the above case. Victims often endure years or months of psychological pressure, and often feel they have no one to turn to.

Many times I have spoken to non Asian friends and colleagues, who all just say the same thing, that they should live their own lives without caring what their parents think or say.  But that is easier said than done. Try telling someone who has had to endure this psychological pressure for decades to “just leave” and see what their reaction is. They are hardly going to thank you, because in many instances, there is nothing that they can do.

It does come down to a difference between the cultures. In south Asian and middle eastern families, you are not an individual. Instead, you are part of a collective identity, i.e. your whole family, tribe or caste, and anything you do impacts them. This is especially true of women, who are often seen as possessions of the male members of the tribe or family. Therefore, simply telling a victim of forced marriage or other disputes to leave their family is pointless. Without your family, without your tribe, who exactly are you? What is your identity without them? That is why many victims will not come forward, for fear of ostracising their entire family and being disowned. For it is far better to remain in an abusive family, and be part of that collective identity, than be outside the clan, having to forge a new identity for yourself.

Victims need more support rather than just more laws, as very few will want to report their parents. They need to know that there is a support system out there, people who will understand what they are going through, who will be there for them should they have to leave their family to start afresh, which is why more people need to be aware of the cultural reasons behind forced marriages.  So while the app is certainly an innovative idea, it ‘treats’ (if even that) the symptoms rather than the causes.

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Written by Iram Ramzan

December 23, 2012 at 9:41 pm

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