The men and families who perpetrate forced marriage are spared, while the victims are fined

By Camilla Cavendish

Over the Christmas period, some teenage girls will have been promised a holiday to their parents’ homeland. They will have arrived to find it is not a holiday, but a betrothal and a rape. This is not a “cultural” inevitability, but often a naked bid by the groom for British citizenship. And the UK must stop targeting victims.

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When police in Somaliland raided a “correctional school” in 2017, they found 25 young women from the US and Europe who had been incarcerated there for a year and horrifically tortured. Some were beaten for reciting the Koran in imperfect Arabic. Their parents chose this fate to prevent them from becoming too westernised and to force them into marriage.

Yet the outrage has been directed not at the families, but at the UK government. The Foreign Office rescued 27 such victims from abroad in 2017. Unfortunately, it turns out that it has been charging many of them the costs of their repatriation. Four of the British girls found in the Somalian correctional school were charged £740 each. Some have been struggling, unsurprisingly, to pay the money back.

Insult has been added to injury, tarnishing the heroic efforts of police and officials who found and freed them, and loading pressure on to charities such as Southall Black Sisters, which helps ethnic minorities escape domestic violence and other kinds of abuse.

The Foreign Office treats such victims like any British tourist who has run out of money abroad — which overlooks the unique vulnerability of these girls. In the past two years it has spent £7,765 lending money to at least eight victims of forced marriage who could not fund their own repatriation. Only about £3,000 has been recovered.

It would surely be fairer to recoup the money from the families who arranged these appalling abuses. One might think that is the least they could do. For the true scandal is not that our hapless institutions are struggling to navigate these perilous waters; it is that parents in the US, UK and Europe are visiting barbaric medieval practices upon girls who are citizens of liberal, democratic states. In the UK alone, 60,000 girls are thought to be at risk of genital mutilation. Child protection groups have been contacted by girls as young as 13 who are being threatened with forced marriage. They warn that some may become so desperate that they could take their own lives.

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The uncomfortable truth is that we have entirely failed to vanquish these practices. In 2018 the Forced Marriage Unit, run jointly by the UK’s Home Office and Foreign Office, gave advice or support in 1,196 UK cases of forced marriage; 30 per cent of victims were under 18, half of those were aged 15 or under, and the vast majority were female. Those cases are likely to be the tip of the iceberg — not least because girls are extremely reluctant to speak out.

Over the years I have interviewed women in refuges who barely speak English, having been brought here as brides, and have little understanding of their rights. I have met others who are British-born and much more savvy, but still deeply torn between their desire for independence and for family approval.

One wonderfully eloquent woman, Amina, told me that she was taken “on holiday” to Kashmir at the age of 15 and forced to marry a much older man who she says was determined to get her pregnant as fast as possible in order to get a visa. Back home in Wales, she eventually fled to a refuge — only to be disowned by her family. She is still married and her “husband” lives in Cardiff. For such women, the misery never seems to end. They endure all this at the hands of parents and when they can no longer bear it, they are ostracised.

Women’s refuges get very little publicity, not least because it is essential that angry men — including the many white men who are domestic abusers — cannot find them. But their very existence points to our failures. Amina’s family were from Pakistan, the country which makes up about a third of the cases dealt with by the Forced Marriage Unit. But Somalia is now rising up the list: cases from there doubled in 2017.

The UK has created a significant legal armory to try to protect such girls. In 2014, it became illegal to force someone to marry. Yet there have been only three convictions. The first, in 2015, was of a man jailed after determined work by South Wales police, for making a woman marry him by threatening to kill her father. Protection orders can also be taken out by third parties, to impound passports and prevent children being taken abroad against their will.

Yet there have been very few attempts to prosecute the perpetrators, despite the fact that kidnapping, rape, and sexually assaulting a minor are all crimes. This is partly because few girls will call in the police against their own families; some face death threats if they do. There is an urgent need to review the rules around anonymity, and to end the heinous practice of approving visas for men who have used forced marriage as a way to enter Britain.

Many women who wish to block visas for men they have been forced to marry have been unable to do so. The home secretary has promised to act. But women need a way to give statements which are not made public.

Where is the feminist outrage about these horrific abuses? In Somaliland, the police only discovered the illegal school because a brave 19-year-old girl had managed to escape and raise the alarm. How many more such establishments exist, we do not know. The Foreign Office needs to change its charging regime. But it is easy to blame governments. We need to start challenging the perpetrators, too.

The writer, a former head of the Downing Street policy unit, is senior fellow at Harvard Kennedy School

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