This time last year, the Forced Marriage etc. (Protection and Jurisdiction) (Scotland) Act came into effect.
The new Act allows victims – or third parties – who fear being forced into marriage, to make an application for a FMPO (Forced Marriage Protection Order), which protects them from being forced into marriage.
The Act closely mirrored the UK Government’s Forced Marriage (Civil Protection) Act 2007 except in relation to the action taken when a FMPO is breached. The UK Act treated it as a civil breach, whereas the Scottish Act went one step further and made it a criminal breach.
It is still hotly contested as to which approach is more effective. The UK Government is now considering changing breaches of FMPOs from a civil to criminal matter, but advocates of breaches remaining a civil matter point to the fact that in one year there have been only two FMPOs issued in Scotland in comparison to the 86 which were seen within a year of the introduction of the Forced Marriage Act in England and Wales.
It is open to debate how much difference the legislation in its current format has made.
However, the combination of legislation and related awareness work has resulted in an increase in reporting to grass root organisations. The Scottish Domestic Abuse and Forced Marriage helpline took 75 calls on forced marriage in the last year.
I have first-hand experience as a family support consultant at Unity family services where there has been an increase in the numbers of victims making contact – though the majority are inclined to avoid reporting families to the police, preferring to solve issues within the family or via mediators.
There are still misconceptions surrounding forced marriage. To deal with the problem effectively it is imperative to correctly understand what forced marriage is, what it isn’t and its different facets.
There is still confusion about the difference between forced and arranged marriage. The law recognises arranged marriage as a legitimate and successful tradition which has existed in many communities and countries for a very long time. Families of both spouses take a leading role in arranging the marriage but the prospective spouses have the choice on whether or not to accept.
But if a spouse never agrees or changes his or her mind and is forced to go ahead with the marriage, it is then considered a forced marriage.
There is also a perception that forced marriage affects only one particular community, that its victims are exclusively female or that they always involve a partner coming from abroad. Of the 75 calls that were received since the legislation was introduced last November, 44 were from women and 24 from men.
The reality is that cases have been reported in South Asian, East Asian, Middle Eastern, European, Gypsy and African communities. Nor is it specific to any one faith, with forced marriages existing in Christian, Jewish, Hindu, Muslim and Sikh communities. Victims can be male and partners might also be from the UK.
Legislation is important in that it shows the government’s determination in tackling the practice but legislation on its own will not eradicate forced marriage.
The law is there for those who choose to use it and it gives moral support to those who don’t. It also puts pressure on communities to change their attitudes towards the practice and may even deter would-be perpetrators due to the risk of criminalisation. But in itself it is limited, which is why I remain a keen advocate of raising awareness which helps to change attitudes in the long term, with a concentration on prevention work.
• If you or someone you know needs advice about forced marriage, visit yourrightscotland.org or call the helpline on 0800 027 1234. Shaykh Amer Jamil holds an LLB from Strathclyde University and BA (Hons) in Islamic Studies from the University of Wales. His main field of interest is Islamic family law.