Dr Ruth Gaffney-Rhys is a Reader, specialising in Family law. She is the founder and leader of the Women in Society Research Centre and co-director of the Centre for Gender Studies in Wales.
International Women’s Day is an opportunity to highlight the progress that has been achieved in terms of gender equality and to celebrate female success stories across the globe. It is also an appropriate occasion to raise awareness of issues that affect females in the United Kingdom and overseas, such as forced marriage, which is a marriage conducted without the valid consent of one or both parties, where duress is a factor.
Forced marriage is a breach of fundamental human rights, a form of domestic violence and in many cases, constitutes child abuse. In 2013, the Forced Marriage Unit, which is run by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and the Home Office, provided advice and assistance in 1302 cases, 82% of which concerned females and 40% of which involved children.
The number of victims is likely to far exceed this, as it is estimated that fewer than one in ten instances of forced marriage are actually reported. The ‘force’ that victims are subjected to in order to secure their consent to marriage includes physical violence, kidnap, threats to commit to suicide and threats of expulsion from the community. And this only the beginning – a female victim of forced marriage will be required to have a sexual relationship with her husband, may become pregnant against her will and in some cases, may become the victim of further domestic violence. She is often taken overseas for the purpose of marriage and may, therefore, be deprived of her familial and social circle and of opportunities for education and career development.
On a more positive note, much progress has been made in the UK in terms of forced marriage protection, as legislation has been enacted to provide practical remedies for actual and potential victims. But unfortunately the legislation is not as effective as it could be due to a lack of understanding of forced marriage itself and a lack of awareness of the protection available. There is still a long way to go!