In 2008 the UK government adopted the Forced Marriage Civil Protection Act 2007, which allowed authorities to issue protection orders to prevent unwanted marriages from taking place. In some cases this involved confiscating a potential victim’s passport to ensure he or she was not taken abroad and forcibly married. Coerced and early marriages still take place in communities where a strong sense of “honor” is tied to the obedience and modest behavior of women, mainly from South Asia, but also Turkey.
The British government has now decided further action needs to be taken against a practice that Prime Minister David Cameron has described as “abhorrent” and “little more than slavery.” The decision has been welcomed by some organizations defending the rights of women from ethnic communities, which believe the move, expected to be taken in early 2013, will sends a strong signal that coercion will be severely punished.
Others associations have expressed concern that criminalizing forced marriage could deter some victims from contacting the authorities for fear that their relatives will end up in prison. What is clear is that legislation alone cannot solve the issue. Changing cultural perceptions requires patient work and a multi-pronged approach, which should focus primarily on preventive measures, such as training teachers and social workers to detect early signs of pressure and raising awareness in communities that such practices violate individual rights.
What of the situation in Turkey? According to a report entitled “Family Structure in Turkey” published earlier this year by the Ministry of Family and Social Policy, 44.2 percent of marriages conducted in this country are arranged, but they are conducted with the participants’ consent. Almost one in 10 people surveyed, however, stated that they had been coerced into marriage.
The line between an arranged marriage and one that is coerced is often blurred. When a British or German girl or boy is whisked back to their country of origin for a “holiday” and then forced to wed a distant cousin in Pakistan, Bangladesh or Turkey, this clearly constitutes a case of forced marriage. A marriage is also forced when a young woman or man faces threats, intimidation or even physical abuse until they agree to marry the partner chosen by their parents.
But many young women, and indeed young men, whether they live in their country of origin or are members of migrant communities in European countries, still bow to more subtle emotional pressure exerted by relatives and by the broader community. They are expected to “honor” their family by agreeing to their parents’ decision against their own wishes.
How many of the arranged marriages conducted in Turkey involve an element of coercion is not known. When the line has been crossed is not easy to detect, particularly when the young spouses are both adults. Yet we know that many young women, with no independent means of financial support, are dependent on their family and not in a position to make their own decisions. Nor are they emotionally free.
Child marriages, however, clearly breach the law. The Turkish Penal Code (TCK) only allows boys and girls who have reached the age of 17 to marry, although judges can lower the age to 16 in exceptional circumstances. But the Flying Broom organization in Ankara, which has been working on combating child marriages for several years, estimates that 28 percent of people in the 15-49 age group were married before they were 18, based on several surveys, including that of the Hacettepe University Institute of Population Studies. The figure may in fact be higher, judging by the number of cases that regularly make the headlines. Although people who force a minor into marriage can be prosecuted for incitement to what amounts to sexual abuse, the practice remains all too common. In April it emerged that a couple in Tekirdağ had gone to the notary public to give their signed consent to the marriage of their 14-year-old daughter to a 25-year-old man, yet it was only when the young bride became pregnant that the authorities were alerted to the unlawful union. Last month the media reported the case of a 12-year-old girl from Tokat who had been taken out of sixth grade and married off by her father.
If NGOs in Britain are not all convinced that criminalization is the best route to take to end forced marriages, it is clear that across Europe tolerance for traditional and cultural practices that violate human rights is wearing thin. But changing the mentality in migrant communities in Europe also requires a social transformation in their countries of origin, to recognize that women have a right to make their own choice.