Government urged to do more to tackle ‘pernicious’ practice of forced marriage

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Promises to tackle violence against women and girls will be seen as meaningless unless the issue of forced marriage is confronted by Government, a review has warned.

Ministers have been urged not to “shrink” from the challenge of addressing the “pernicious and unlawful practice” which has seen “insufficient action” against it to date, the independent review into faith engagement said.

Report author and the Government’s faith engagement adviser, Colin Bloom, said forced marriage and other issues such as faith-based extremism, financial exploitation, and child safeguarding should not be put in the “too difficult box”.

He wrote: “There is one burning injustice that this Government should not shrink from, which is the issue of forced and coercive marriages.

“Successive governments have rightly spent a lot of time discussing violence against women and girls. Indeed, in recent years the tackling violence against women and girls strategy has been given greater prominence as a priority for government and its agencies to address.

“However, unless government is prepared to really tackle forced and coercive marriage, then its fine words around the tackling violence against women and girls strategy will be seen by many as meaningless.

“If only one thing is achieved from this report, confronting the pernicious and unlawful practice of forced and coercive marriage once and for all should be the goal.”

His recommendations include bringing the Forced Marriage Unit – which is currently a shared unit functioning across the Home Office and the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office – within a single department answering to a single secretary of state.

He said: “Despite many waves of societal, political and journalistic interest, there has been insufficient action to date on forced marriage. This reviewer believes that such crimes would be more effectively tackled if a single government department took sole responsibility of an adequately resourced Forced Marriage Unit.”

He noted that while forced marriage is a criminal offence, many of those with the ability to intervene, including teachers “appear either untrained or afraid of challenging perceived social norms, possibly because of the fear of causing offence”.

Mr Bloom said there appeared to be a “false narrative around the religious and ethnic profile of victims of forced marriage” with eight-year-old campaigning material on the subject disproportionately portraying “seemingly Muslim cases”.

He said a “lack of religious and ethnic group data collection and the lack of overall understanding of the prevalence of forced and coercive marriage in the UK severely hampers the production of effective educational resources and advice”.

He called for the Forced Marriage Unit to be “appropriately structured, resourced and supported” across Government.

Mr Bloom accused the Department for Education of having been “far too slow” in responding to the challenge of illegally unregistered faith-based schools “possibly because of a reluctance to tackle what they perceive to be a difficult subject”.

He suggested the Government should go further in its efforts to register and regulate out-of-school settings, considering what more could be done to hold the hardest-to-reach out-of-school settings to account, including measures such as a mandatory safeguarding reporting regime, governed by a centralised oversight body.

He acknowledged this would “not be simple and would involve difficult questions regarding the regulation of places of worship and the thresholds for regulation” but insisted that the “mental and physical safety of our children should be paramount”.

Among other recommendations, the report said the Government must “redouble its efforts to reinforce the distinctions between extremist
Islamism and Islam and between Islamist extremists and Muslims”.

It urged the Government to continue to find ways “of ensuring that British Muslims do not feel unfairly associated with violent Islamism or Islamists who operate with violent or subversive tactics”.

Mr Bloom said: “Our Government’s understanding of the role of faith in society must remain both current and alive to its evolutionary changes.

“It must also not shy away from some of the challenges that exist in small pockets within faith communities, from forced and coercive marriages to faith-based extremism, financial exploitation, and child safeguarding. These must not be consigned to the ‘too difficult’ box.”

“Greater understanding of faith in all its diversity will ensure that we remain a country that respects, celebrates and understands people of all faiths, beliefs and none.”

Faith minister Baroness Scott said: “As faith minister I will continue to shine a light on the important work of faith groups across the country, who play such an important role in public life.

“I welcome this review and thank Colin for his work – we will carefully consider the recommendations and I’ll make it my mission to continue to work closely with those of all faiths.”

The review, which was commissioned in 2019, saw more than 21,000 people respond to the public consultation and has made a total of 22 recommendations to the Government.

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