Written Evidence from Dr Helen McCabe, Dr Rowland Seymour, Dr Katarina Schwarz, Dr Lauren Eglen and Rebecca Brown [HBA0016]
Dr Helen McCabe is Associate Professor in Political Theory at the University of Nottingham and leads the work on forced marriage (FM) at the University’s Rights Lab. Dr Rowland Seymour is Assistant Professor in Mathematics at the University of Birmingham. Dr Katarina Schwarz is Associate Professor of Antislavery Law and Policy and Associate Director of the Rights Lab, University of Nottingham; Dr Lauren Eglen is a Rights Lab Research Fellow in Gender, Modern Slavery, and Feminist Approaches; and Rebecca Brown is a PhD candidate in the University of Nottingham’s School of Politics and IR. We all worked together on a project seeking to understand the impact of Covid-19 on people at risk of, or already experiencing, FM, as well as on other projects on this issue. We are submitting evidence as we carry out research into what makes people vulnerable to FM, where people are most at risk, and how the government and support services can best prevent vulnerable people being forced into marriages, and/or their sustainable recovery after leaving FM.
1.1 The UK Government defines FM as a marriage where one or both parties do not consent to the marriage and are pressured or coerced into it. FM can also occur when one party lacks the capacity to consent. It is illegal under the Anti-Social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Act 2014. A new law (Marriage and Civil Partnership (Minimum Age) Act 2022) specifically aimed at making child marriage illegal will come into force in February 2023, in England and Wales. As part of this law, it will be illegal to marry or to organise or arrange the marriage of any person under the age of 18. There will be no need to prove coercion for the act to be illegal.
1.2 FM is a significant global issue, with an estimated 22 million people living in FM on any given day in 2021 (ILO and Walk Free, 2022). This is an increase of 6.6 million since 2017. Last year, the UK government’s FM Unit gave advice and support in 337 cases. (In 2020, when they used a different counting method, this was 759, and in 2019 it was 1355 – these figures include cases which are now being classed as “general enquiries” because no single individual was identified as needing help.)
2.1 There is currently no statutory definition of honour-based abuse (HBA), with service providers most often turning to the Crown Prosecution Service definition laid out in this call for evidence. FM is a complex phenomenon that can be driven not only by gender norms and connected perceptions of acceptable behaviour, but also poverty, healthcare, education and employment, The CPS definition can thus accurately describe many, but not necessarily all, cases of FM in the UK.
2.2 This said, FM is widely recognised as a form of so-called HBA. FM can be perceived by perpetrators as a means of “protecting” or “preserving” honour, and also as a means of “redeeming” or “recovering” apparently “lost” honour or restoring honour after “shame” is perceived to have been brought on an individual, family or community. This can be the honour of the individual who is forced to marry, or the honour of the family and/or community – in such cases, someone who is not perceived to have “dishonoured” their family or community may be forced to marry in order to re-establish honour “lost” by another. In addition, other forms of so-called HBA including sexual assault, violence, coercion, intimidation, and kidnapping can occur as a mode of forcing someone into marriage. As the government’s FM Unit notes, victims may be held overseas against their will. (The FM Unit works to repatriates victims.) However, it is worth noting that 9% of cases handled by the FM Unit pre-pandemic involved cases solely pertaining to the UK (McCabe et al, 2022).
2.3 FM is a complex issue that resists neat classification as a single form of abuse. It is recognised as a human rights abuse, a form of Domestic Abuse, and a type of Violence Against Women and Girls (VAWG). While women and girls make up the majority of identified forced marriage victims, our research shows that, on average, 20% of calls handled by the UK government’s FM Unit related to male victims (McCabe et al, 2022). Furthermore, globally, it is estimated that just under a third of all people living in FM are men and boys (ILO and Walk Free, 2022). Similarly, whole communities can be involved in coercing someone to marry and the legal definition of domestic abuse as occurring between two people who are “personally connected” (by marriage, engagement or civil partnership; by an intimate relationship; by having a child together; or by being a relative) can be too narrow to capture survivors’ experiences. However, national HBA charity Karma Nirvana report that in 99% of their calls, the perpetrator of HBA is personally connected to the victim.
2.4 FM can also happen in contexts other than so-called HBA. For instance, there has been recent concern about FM as a form of “predatory” elder abuse (with people marrying older people with dementia or other cognitive impairments, who lack the capacity to consent). Similarly, adults with learning disabilities can be vulnerable to FM. In some cases (though by no means all), this might be because it is seen by their parents as a mode of securing their long-term care (Clawson and Kitson, 2010). People with learning disabilities are at five times greater risk of FM than people without, and men with learning disabilities are just as likely to experience FM as women – unlike in the general population (Clawson et al, 2020). (Our research shows that 53% of cases of people with learning disabilities handled by the FM Unit between 2014 and 2019 concerned male victims – McCabe et al, 2022.)
2.5 FM is not the same as an arranged marriage. The key element of FM is lack of consent. If people are able to refuse to marry a partner arranged for them, then this is not FM.
3.1 Police forces collect some data on the types of abuse practiced under the pretext of upholding cultural norms, including as a means of forcing people to marry. For instance, police forces separate out HBA-related offences which are for “assault with injury” (16% of cases), “assault without injury” (15% of cases), “controlling or coercive behaviour” (14% of cases), “threats to kill” (8% of cases), “malicious communications” (7% of cases), “rape of a female aged 16 and over” (6% of cases), “kidnapping” (6% of cases), “stalking” (5% of cases), “harassment” (5% of cases), “cruelty of children/young persons” (2% of cases) and “public fear, alarm or distress” (1% of cases) (Home Office, 2021).
3.2 We have analysed a large dataset of testimony from survivors across the world (McCabe and Eglen, 2022) for abuses specifically connected to modern slavery (including domestic servitude, forced pregnancy and childbearing, forced labour, trafficking and slavery), an analysis which also highlighted survivors’ experiences of physical violence, kidnapping, emotional and psychological abuse, sexual assault, financial abuse, cruelty, starvation and imprisonment. More research is needed, however, on understanding the prevalence of FM and associated abuse in the UK and across the world.
4.1 The government set up an FM Unit to safeguard victims of FM and lead on FM policy and outreach in 2005. However, it is not clear that FM is well understood by the government, police and other agencies, though statutory guidance was updated (after eight years) in July 2022. There has not been much time for agencies to update policies in light of this new guidance, and ensure all relevant staff are trained appropriately (and feel confident to act on their training).
4.2 It is also not clear that the upcoming change in the law regarding child marriage is well-known or understood, and has been adopted into policy by the government, police, or other relevant agencies. For instance, when asked in parliament about the Department of Education’s approach to preparing for the Marriage and Civil Partnership (Minimum Age) Act 2022, Kelly Tolhurst MP, Minister of State (Education), said the department would make information on FM available for education professionals and signpost to the FM Unit (HC Deb 11 Oct 2022 61027). It is not clear when, or if, this has happened, or how accessible or useful this will be to education professionals, or what is being done for other relevant professionals and front-line staff.
4.3 Until the Covid-19 pandemic, data on FM was not included in Silver Command meetings, or on the dashboard of data used in Number 10. However, this was added during the pandemic, and we hope that it will continue to be included. Its previous omission suggests that understanding by the government may be lacking. Similarly, data from the national helpline for FM and other HBA-related experiences (run by Karma Nirvana) has only this year been included in relevant data by the Office for National Statistics, suggesting that understanding at least of the prevalence of the issue may not be strong in government or other agencies who rely on such data for information.
4.4 The Home Office released statistics on so-called HBA offences in England and Wales in 2021, including FM. They admitted that these were “experimental”, which means that “they are published to involve users and stakeholders at an early stage in assessing their suitability and quality”, with users and stakeholders being invited to comment on the statistics and their future direction via the Home Office Crime Statistics Team. The Home Office acknowledge that they are “aware of a number of data quality issues” (Home Office, 2021). They write: “It is known that for some police forces, the identification of crimes as HBA-related relies on a police officer or other member of police staff remembering to correctly apply the HBA-related identifier to an office on their Record Management System. Such identifiers are not always correctly applied”, but the Home Office Data Hub is “dependent on the identifier being correctly applied for each respective offence”. In addition, because of a change in IT system in July 2019, Greater Manchester police were unable to return data to the Home Office on HBA in 2020.
4.5 The Home Office said that quality-assurance checks were applied to data returned at the end of the financial year (supplied via a spreadsheet every quarter) “to ensure that all offences of FGM or FM have been included” and “identified correctly.” However, it is not clear how this is done or ascertained, and whether the data are, therefore, completely accurate. We welcome the Home Office’s commitment to “continue to work with police forces to improve the data quality of this collection”, and their efforts to engage with researchers in order to develop a better mechanism for estimating FM prevalence. The current lack of good-quality data suggests FM may not be well-understood by the government or police both in terms of what it entails as an offence (and how to identify it) and how prevalent it is across the country.
5.1 There is very little good data on FM in the UK. This is an issue because it inhibits the design and enactment of evidence-based policy, and the evaluation of the efficacy of interventions.
5.2 Producing statistics is vital to identifying those vulnerable to FM and creating a coherent strategy to support those vulnerable to this crime. The FM Unit does release statistics annually summarising the number of cases it dealt with and broad characteristics of the victims. However, the method the FM Unit uses to collect and publish statistics has changed in 2019, 2021, and 2022. This means it is not possible to compare statistics over these years and understand what characteristics make individuals vulnerable to FM.
5.3 Many of the safeguarding responsibilities and mechanisms lie in the remit of local authorities. Although the FM Unit does provide regional level information (e.g. FM cases in the East Midlands), the data does not provide sufficient regional level information to empower local authorities to develop coherent support strategies for victims in their own areas. It is not clear what data is being collected by local authorities themselves, or how they are used.
5.4 The lack of regular and meaningful statistical releases from the FM Unit suggests the Government does not have good knowledge of FM prevalence, or of the background characteristics of victims and perpetrators, and is not using data to develop or validate a coherent strategy on FM. We have supported MPs in Nottingham to table written questions to understand i) the FM Unit’s generation of FM statistics (HC Deb 2 Sep 22 45473; HC Deb 2 Sep 22 45683), ii) the Government’s understanding of how deprivation links to vulnerability to FM (HC Deb 2 Sep 22 45681), and iii) how the work of the FM Unit is monitored and evaluated (HC Deb 2 Sep 22 61025). We believe these three elements are important to developing a coherent safeguarding strategy. The answers to the parliamentary questions showed there is i) currently no public information about improving the quality of the FM Unit’s statistics, ii) a commitment to better understanding vulnerability to FM but no information about how this commitment will be met, and iii) no evaluation for how the FM Unit’s work is carried out. It is not clear what strategy the FM Unit is taking to support implementation of the Marriage and Civil Partnership (Minimum Age) Act 2022 (which comes into force in February 2023).
5.5 This said, using data from the FM Unit, we can say that, pre-pandemic, 79.5% of victims helped by the Unit were female (and 20.5% male). Between 1 and 2% of cases handled each year involved a victim who identified as LGBT+. (We see this as representing a significant under-reporting of this issue by LGBT+ victims to the FMU.) Around 8% of cases involved victims with learning disabilities. In these cases, the victim was slightly more likely to be male than female.
5.6 The age-range of victims with the highest percentage of cases, year-on-year, was 18-21 pre-pandemic (see Figure 1). On average, 15% of victims were aged 15 or younger each year in cases handled by the FM Unit. Victims aged 31+ were a slowly-increasing proportion of cases between 2015 and 2019. The estimated median age of victims was 20-23. (McCabe et al, 2022).
5.7 Calls came to the FMU from all regions and countries of the UK pre-pandemic, though 95% of calls came from England. Within England most cases related to victims from London (22.65%), the West Midlands (13.62%), the North West (11.2%), South East (9.31%), and Yorkshire and Humberside (9.3%) (McCabe et al, 2022).
5.8 The FM Unit recorded 118 different “focus countries” between 2015 and 2019 – these are “the country where the FM is due to take place, or the country that the spouse is currently residing in, or both”. There were around 70 different focus countries relating to FM each year. Pre-pandemic, Pakistan was by far the most common “focus country”, being linked to 42% of cases handled by the FM Unit each year. The next most-common focus countries were Bangladesh (9%) and India (6%). This said, even including countries other than the UK were “focus countries”, between 70 and 84% of FMs in cases handled by the FM Unit were planned to, or did, take place in the UK (McCabe et al, 2022). This is not necessarily to say, however, that 42% victims in the UK have a link to Pakistan, because we do not know what the relation is between the real number of victims in the UK and cases handled by the FM Unit.
5.9 In cases relating specifically to victims with learning disabilities, Pakistan was the focus country in, on average, 50% of cases; Bangladesh in 17%; India in 10% and the UK in 10% (McCabe et al, 2022). Again, this only tells us about cases handled by the FM Unit – it is not possible to extrapolate from this data to the whole country.
5.10 Data from the national helpline for FM tells a similar story, though our research shows that different communities turn to the FM Unit and the national helpline. Karma Nirvana’s helpline was launched in 2008. They received, on average, around 500 new FM referrals each year between 2017 and 2021. The majority of calls between 2017 and 2021 came from the police force areas of West Yorkshire (17.8%), London (15.7%), West Midlands (7%), Thames Valley (4.3%), Nottinghamshire (3%), Staffordshire (4.3%), South Yorkshire (2.7%), and Bedfordshire (2%). Since 2019, a significant proportion have also come from Greater Manchester (8.4%). The high level of calls from West Yorkshire may be linked to Karma Nirvana being headquartered in Leeds, and engaging in a high level of local outreach and training, rather than showing that FM is more prevalent in this area.
5.11 There is also data on FM available through information on FM Protection Orders, though this is limited. In 2019, 75% of applications were made for victims aged 17 or younger; in 2018 this was 72%. Information on where FMPOs were applied for does not tell us anything about the geographical location of victims, as FMPOs are often applied for in courts away from where victims live, in order not to put them at risk (McCabe et al, 2022).
5.12 As part of our research into FM in the UK, we have produced the first ward level estimates of forced marriage (see Figure 2) and are using these estimates to support local stakeholders in Nottinghamshire to safeguard vulnerable adolescents (Seymour, et. al., 2022).
5.13 Our local level vulnerability estimates can be layered on top of other local level estimates, such as deprivation, income, and educational achievement. We investigated the correlation between the risk of FM in each ward to 16 indices of multiple deprivation from the Office for National Statistics. Indices of multiple deprivation describe different kinds of deprivation for neighbourhoods across the UK and are generated by the Office for National Statistics for use across government.
5.14 Our research showed that wards where victims were most vulnerable to FM were also those with high levels of environment deprivation, including housing in poor condition; houses without central heating; high rates of road traffic accidents; and poor air quality, including high rates of nitrogen dioxide, benzene, sulphur dioxide, and particulates (Seminerio et. al., 2022).
5.15 Our research also shows that an increase in the income deprivation affecting older people score aligned with an increase in estimates risk of FM in Nottinghamshire (Seminerio et. al., 2022).
5.16 The “wider barriers subdomain” score measures issues related to housing such as affordability, homelessness, and overcrowding. As the wider barriers score increased, the estimated risk of FM was also higher in Nottinghamshire.
5.17 The strongest correlation to risk of FM was with geographical barriers. This relates to how close residents are to local services. It is calculated by combining (all in km): road distance to a post office; road distance to a primary school; road distance to general store or supermarket; and road distance to a GP surgery. Wards that were furthest away from these services had the lowest estimated risk of FM.
6.1 Our research on the impact of COVID-19 and COVID-related decision making on people at risk of, or already experiencing, FM in the UK, revealed a number of challenges and barriers faced by victims of FM in seeking support or protection which apply more widely than just to the pandemic:
6.1.1 Access to Support. Service providers reported that they need better and more up to date training on how to be responsive, supportive, and to know where to access specialist help for women who have no recourse to public funds and women who do not speak English or have disabilities.
6.1.2 Language Barriers. There is concern that people for whom English is not their first language (or who may not speak or read English at all) find it hard to talk about their experiences with service providers, police and other relevant front-line staff, and are unlikely to hear messages about available support or gain relevant knowledge about the criminal nature of the abuse there are experiencing and who to report it to. Targeted education campaigns in multiple languages, delivered by representatives from a variety of community groups are needed.
6.1.3 Mistrust of Police. There is concern that abusers exert control over victims by misinforming them about the police response. This is particularly the case with people who have migrated to the UK, who may believe their abuser when told that the police will be unsympathetic, and even deport them if they come forward as victims.
6.1.4 Lack of adequate shelter space. There is concern about a paucity of specialist shelter, particularly refuges run by and for women from different communities who might have a better understanding of FM and the specific experiences of survivors from those communities.
6.1.5 Different understandings of “justice.” Police and other government agencies can be very focussed on a criminal justice outcome. However, not all survivors want this, particularly given how long a case might go on, and the impact this has on them. Instead, “justice” might mean something very different to some survivors, and is likely to be very personal and differ from person to person. The focus on a criminal justice outcome can be a barrier to victims coming forward to seek help.
7.1 As noted above, it is not clear that all police forces understand how to properly tag offences linked to HBA and FM, which suggests they may also not all understand these offences, and how they are manifested.
7.2 Police forces reported 125 FM-related offences to the Home Office for year ending March 2021. A question then arises as to what processes were followed in regard to these offences, because there were not 125 prosecutions for FM in the UK last year. Of course, this may in part be due to decisions taken by the Crown Prosecution Service as well as police forces, and also decisions taken by survivors about proceeding with a case. However, it reflects a wider tendency of sexual violence and violence against women and girls not to be prosecuted effectively in the UK.
7.3 There is no national, publicly available record of successful prosecutions for FM. The first, in Wales in 2015, received a deal of media coverage, as did two which swiftly followed each other in England in 2018. Since then, our research team has only found evidence of two further prosecutions, and a handful for breaching an FM Protection Order. Given how many FM offences are recorded by police, and how many cases handled by the FM Unit and national helpline, this is a shockingly low number.
7.4 The Home Office statistics on FM (and HBA) only record crimes reported to the police (and accurately tagged for HBA). The Government has long been aware of the issue of unreported crimes. It set up the Crime Survey for England and Wales in 1984 to understand the scale of crime and who is affected by crime, independently of police records. Recently the Survey showed that only four in ten crimes are reported to the police.
7.5 The Survey contains a section on domestic violence and these questions are used to inform the government’s strategy on tackling domestic violence and violence against women and girls. Despite the Government recognising FM as a form of domestic violence, the Survey currently does not ask about FM or any other form of honour-based abuse. Instead, the Office for National Statistics reports data from the honour-based abuse charity Karma Nirvana. (This is an innovation which only began this year.)
8.1 A statutory definition of HBA (including FM) which is recognised by survivors and key stakeholders as adequately covering all experiences needs to be formulated and officially adopted by the government.
8.2 There are evidently problems with enforcing the law and protecting victims, which need to be solved.
9.1 Our research into the impact of Covid-19 on those at risk of, or already experiencing, FM found the following challenges experienced by services supporting victims of FM with a wider application than just the pandemic:
9.1.1 Difficulty in making safe contact. HBA and FM most often occurs within the confines of a domestic space and it can be difficult for service providers to safely contact and support those at risk who live with the people forcing them into a marriage.
9.1.2 Language. Language can be a challenge for supporting victims of FM, especially where English is not their first language. This is both a challenge for understanding and identifying the survivors’ experiences and needs, and being able to refer them to specialist services who will be able to communicate with them in their preferred language.
9.1.3 Lack of understanding of FM. Survivors may present at service providers who are not familiar with FM – at, for instance, a more general DA or VAWG service provider. Service providers and front-line staff, e.g. in social services and police forces, report ‘nervousness’ in dealing with FM cases and a lack of knowledge about where to refer survivors for more specialist support.
9.1.4 Lack of information/follow-up on school leavers. Service providers report they would appreciate the development of a clearer strategy regarding children at risk who drop out of mainstream education. Given the age of most victims in cases handled by the FM Unit, keeping track of children at risk as they move from secondary school to further education is vital.
9.1.5 Prioritisation. Several service providers reported issues regarding the prioritisation of FM by local government and questions over whether they took FM seriously enough as a risk. NGO workers and solicitors reported “pushback” from the local authority when issues around FM safeguarding were raised, with schools being accused of being overzealous, or being asked to go back and get more evidence, and solicitors being told FM cases were not a high priority, which is somewhat counter to the multi-agency statutory advice, which reminds everyone of the “‘one chance’ rule”: “staff may only have one chance to … save a life … If the victim is allowed to walk out of the door without support being offered, that one chance might be wasted” (FCDO and Home Office, 2022).
9.1.6 Different Procedural Guidance. Local authorities, schools, social service professionals, police and other legal professionals report working with very different procedural guidance. This creates a challenge for supporting people at risk. There needs to be improved coordination and streamlined access to information.
9.1.7 Resources. A number of officers from police forces shared with our research team that FM cases are very resource demanding, needing a lot of specialist understanding, time and investment. It can be particularly resource-intensive finding sufficient evidence to prove intent (which is needed in court), which involves understanding, and taking into consideration, all the other crimes which were committed as part of forcing someone to marry. The recent Operation Soteria Bluestone Report makes clear that police force investigators and other relevant staff lack sufficient specialist knowledge about sexual offending (which may be connected to FM), and there is need for specialism and research informed specialist investigative practice for sexual offences (Stanko, 2022). The current lack of specialist knowledge impacts on the quality and outcomes of investigations and victim engagement. This is exacerbated by under-staffing, officer-burnout and cuts to police funding as part of austerity measures which mean, even if cases were not rising, resources per case would be less.
9.1.8 Funding. Service providers stated a desire that the government recognise the work they do, and its vital role in tackling FM and supporting survivors. In particular, they need more funding so that people in this profession can be properly paid, and expertise and staff can be retained. (This is even more pressing in the current cost of living crisis.) It takes time to train specialist service providers, particularly in deep and nuanced understanding of FM. If staff do not feel adequately supported and trained, they will leave because dealing with cases becomes too much for them.
9.2 We also found evidence of the following mitigation:
9.2.1 Remote/Online Working. A wide variety of service users reporting that moving to online and remote working enabled a solidarity and information exchange across lots of different bodies dealing with FM, and DA cases more generally. Without travel costs, developing networks and exchanging information became more accessible and affordable. This may have led to an increase in referrals, because more people became aware of FM, and of the specialist services available to those affected.
Our recommendations are:
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