‘Fighting for a Childhood’: Newnham’s Family Forum addresses forced marriage in the UK

Jasvinder Sanghera CBE and Louise McCallum joined us last week to speak about the extent of forced marriage in the UK, and what people, especially those working with young people, can do to recognise and oppose it.

The Family Forum is Newnham’s annual seminar on family issues, which in recent years has discussed topics such as the sexualisation of young people, issues around care, and non-traditional families.

Jasvinder Sanghera is the founder of charity Karma Nirvana, which works against forced marriage and honour-based abuse among all communities in the UK.

Aged 16, threatened with a forced marriage, she fled her home. Although she and her sisters were born in Britain, their parents brought them up to believe in an ‘honour culture’ that insisted that girls should marry according to their parents wishes. She had already watched her older sisters taken out of school at 15 and married to strangers. Jasvinder escaped, and though her parents reported her to the police as a runaway, she was fortunate: the police officer who tracked her down accepted that she was in danger. She had achieved her freedom, but at the cost of being disowned by her parents.

Meanwhile, Jasvinder watched as her sister Robina suffered a horrifically abusive marriage. Family and community leaders pressured Robina to return to her husband, and she died as a result of suicide aged 24.  Jasvinder was determined to fight against beliefs that had killed her sister.

“It’s not part of my culture, religion or tradition to be harmed,” she insists.

Jasvinder calls for people to be far more aware of forced marriage, and to enquire about girls’ wellbeing. She encourages teachers, in particular, to be ready to talk about consent and forced marriage in the classroom:

“[Teenagers at risk of forced marriage] need a counter-narrative in their classroom. They’re not getting that counter narrative in their families or communities: it needs to be in the classroom, where we can undo the conditioning, the grooming of these children.”

Leeds-based barrister Louise McCallum specialises in cases concerning allegations of forced marriage. She gave a legal perspective on forced marriage, which has been a criminal offence since 2014. Forced marriage is one in which “one in which one or both spouses do not or cannot consent to the marriage, and violence, threats or any other form of coercion is involved. Coercion may include emotional pressure, physical force or the threat of it, and financial pressure.”

The Forced Marriage Unit gave advice or support in 1355 cases related to possible forced marriage in 2019, but this is certainly only a fraction of the cases that took place.

Both speakers emphasised that forced marriage is by no means restricted to communities of any one faith, or from any ethnicity or background. Men as well as women may experience forced marriage, and the FMU and Karma Nivana will recognise and support them. In 2019 statistics from the FMU showed:

  • 27% of victims are under 18
  • 36% of victims are aged 18-25
  • 10% of cases involve a victim with a learning disability,
  • 80% of victims are female
  • 5% have no overseas element, with the potential or actual marriage taking place entirely within the UK
  • forced marriages occur in families of many different faiths, ethnicities and nationalities

Having seen forced marriage criminalised, Karma Nivana’s current campaign is to raise the age for marriage in the UK to 18. They argue that allowing marriage at the age of 16 with the content of parents facilitates forced marriage.

Meanwhile, the Karma Nivana helpline is there to support those at risk of forced marriage, and those who need advice to support others. Jasvinder concluded with an appeal to people to be aware and to raise an alert if they have concerns:

“We’re hearing more and more on the helpline around children who are very afraid, who are very scared of the Christmas holiday now.”

Find out more about Karma Nivana’s work 

Many thanks to the organisers of the annual Newnham Family Forum for organising this event.