Launch of North Wales’ Practitioner Guidance on Honour-Based Violence and Forced Marriage

On 20th June I attended an event hosted by North Wales Police in St Asaph, to mark the launch of North Wales’ Practitioner Guidance on Honour-Based Violence and Forced Marriage. This guidance is supported and adopted by local authorities in Anglesey, Gwynedd, Flintshire, Conwy, Denbighshire and Wrexham but its application is by no means limited to those areas, and I came away fully enthused and with real insight into how it could be used to help and protect people in Shropshire, Herefordshire and beyond.

There has been a number of high profile cases in recent years, of girls and young women being forced into marriages, injured or even killed by their families after doing something that is considered to bring shame or dishonour to their family or community. (In some cases, young men are also victims.) Often this behaviour can appear relatively trivial – getting a job without permission, having a relationship with someone outside the community or caste, wearing make up or revealing clothing, etc. In some cases, being suspected of being homosexual is a cause.

It is important to dispel some common myths:

  • Forced marriage is not the same as an arranged marriage. In an arranged marriage, even though family members may select the couple for each other the ultimate decision, whether or not to marry, is the couple’s and they are free to refuse.

  • It is not simply prevalent in certain ethnic communities but is present, in varying forms, across a wide range of faiths, cultures and nationalities. In some cases, disabled people are particularly vulnerable through the family’s misguided belief that a spouse can be that person’s carer in the future.  Although many spouses are, of course, willing and devoted carers there are concerns that people with disabilities which prevent them from understanding the nature of marriage, validly consenting to marriage or from being able to express a preference, are being forced to marry ‘carers’ who are equally duped into the marriage.
  • Honour-based violence and forced marriage can never be justified or explained away as religious practice or cultural norm. None of the world’s major faiths contain teachings permitting or condoning forced marriage or abuse based on honour/shame. This is particularly important for us as practitioners, since we are all conscientious to ensure that, in the course of our work, we do not make insensitive or inaccurate assumptions about the cultures and beliefs of those we work with and sometimes we risk being over-cautious.
One purpose of the day was to help participants spot potential danger signs of forced marriage or abuse and there was repeated emphasis on the “one-chance rule”, that we need to have the courage of our convictions and intervene / assist if we have even the slightest suspicion that someone is at risk of these things. Sometimes we will only have one chance to act.

Someone who is considered to have damaged their or their community’s honour can be subjected not only to physical violence and abuse, but also more insidious forms of mistreatment such as house arrest, removal from education, removal of phones and computers, friends banned, money taken away and ostracism within the community.

The course came at a particularly poignant time of the year. It is estimated that as many as 3,000 people – mostly young girls and women, although some boys and men – will be dreading the summer holidays, when it becomes easier to take them abroad and force them into marriage, or ceremonies outlawed in the UK, such as Female Genital Mutilation, without schools becoming suspicious. Every year a number of girls do not return to school or work in the UK after the holidays, the school or employer being informed that she has ‘chosen’ to remain abroad with relatives. The authorities are then generally far more restricted in the action they can take.

As with everything, teaching can be brought to life by true stories and we were privileged to hear from Saima Afzal MBE. She works for Lancashire Police Authority as a key advisor on honour-based issues and forced marriage and showed how well-qualified she is to do so, speaking movingly but also, at times, with surprising humour about her own experience of a forced marriage as a young woman. She seemed almost apologetic about speaking (without notes!) for 2 hours but my feeling was that she could have held her audience spellbound for another 2 days, she was so fascinating and engaging and spoke with amazing compassion and understanding for her family, despite acknowledging their role in what she had been through.

There is now protection available through the Courts where a person is at risk of, or subject to, honour-based abuse or forced marriage: police powers of protection, orders under the Children Act, Forced Marriage Orders and injunctions to name but a few examples.

The Family Law department at Lanyon Bowdler has considerable experience and expertise in advising on issues of domestic abuse, and I am confident that the invaluable information gained on this course will enable us to offer an even greater level of protection and reassurance to anyone concerned for themselves or a friend / family member.