The Sharan Project: Tackling forced marriages through a pandemic

The Sharan Project: Tackling forced marriages through a pandemic

A forced marriage is where one or both parties do not or cannot consent to the marriage, and pressure or abuse is used to force them into wedlock. In 2014, it became a criminal offence in England and Wales to enforce marriage with a maximum penalty of seven years. The legislation allows law enforcement agencies to pursue perpetrators in other countries where a British national is involved and India is among the focus countries which has registered a decline in the number of cases over the years.

The government's Forced Marriage Unit (FMU), which tracks these cases, registered drop in numbers from India to 65 in 2019, compared to 85 in 2018 in its latest figures.

'iGlobal' caught up with Polly Harrar, founder of The Sharan Project and board member of the FMU, to go behind these figures and explore the challenges faced by the organisation and how the Covid-19 pandemic has impacted their work.

The Sharan Project

Founded in 2008, The Sharan Project supports South Asian women in the UK who have been or are at risk of being disowned by their families or communities, or have forcibly or voluntarily left home to escape honour-based abuse, domestic abuse, dowry violence and cultural conflict.

The charity delivers bespoke training programmes to police forces, government departments and community groups across the UK to ensure preventative measures are in place and appropriate action is taken when cases arise.

Polly,who was appointed as co-chair of the London Harmful Practices, set up by Metropolitan Police, said: “We all recognise that we cannot deal with harmful practices alone and by working in partnership together, we can make a lasting difference for victim and survivors of abuse.

“We have been working with our partners at Metropolitan Police to develop 'The Schools Charter' to ensure all educational settings do more to ensure a zero-tolerance to harmful practices and we hope, now government has called for all schools to re-open in September, that this work can continue to ensure schools have the resources they need to keep children safe.”

In 2016, The Sharan Project ran 'Our Girl', a national forced marriage prevention and awareness campaign reaching over 11,000 young people, 3,000 professionals and 86 schools, colleges, and universities.

Partnership approach

Established in 2005, the Forced Marriage Unit (FMU) is responsible for taking the lead on the UK's government forced marriage policy, outreach, and casework. Jointly run by the Home Office and Foreign and Commonwealth Office, the FMU provides support to victims as well as expert training and guidance to professionals.

“The FMU takes a partnership approach by working with specialists, experts and NGOs to ensure victims and survivors receive appropriate support, they raise awareness and deliver training across the UK and work to ensure government changes to policies and laws are communicated,” said Polly, who is a member of the FMU Partnership Board.

A report published in 2019 reveals the FMU gave advice or support to 1,355 cases related to a possible forced marriage. Case numbers had remained consistent since 2011, until 2019, when reported figures showed a 10 per cent decrease.

The FMU's support extends overseas where British nationals facing a forced marriage abroad are helped to return to the UK or at least relocated to a place of safety with the support of local organisations.

“There has been significant progress made since the FMU was established, each year it receives over 1,000 calls and is responsible for the consulate response in-country to ensure victims of forced marriage are supported to return to the UK.”

Lockdown fears

Since the Covid-19 pandemic, charities and organisations have seen a spike in the number of calls from people worried about forced marriage. The surge in forced marriages is an unanticipated side-effect of the pandemic and brings in new challenges for charities, organisations and the UK government.

“Covid-19 has had a devasting impact globally, more so for women who are experiencing abuse, for many, they were already living in lockdown before restrictions were imposed and the pandemic has only further created the perfect storm which is why we have seen a spike in calls to all services,” reveals Polly.

As the UK slowly eases out of lockdown and travel restrictions are reduced, Polly fears that parents could now be planning to take their children abroad for weddings against their own will.

“During lockdown, international travel was restricted, and this meant that families seeking to take their children abroad for the purpose of forced marriage were restricted. That said, many saw lockdown as an opportunity to plan ahead and as we slowly begin to release restrictions, we are seriously concerned that there will be an uptake in cases where victims will be taken abroad and forced into marriages.”

Fight for funding

An investigation in 2018 by 'The Times' revealed that the UK Home Office has been accused of failing to help British victims of forced marriage by readily issuing visas. Applications can be made to block them but Polly reveals that “more needs to be done to support women with no recourse to public funds and those who arrive in the UK on a spousal visa only to then encounter abuse and violence. For those who do not speak English, it can be even harder to access support and refuge provision.”

The lack of funding for specialist black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) support means that these women can often feel left behind or ignored as the policies and service provision do not meet their needs.

“We will continue to campaign for the rights of all women and urge further action by government to dismantle this second class citizen approach for victims of forced marriage and abuse.”

by Preeti Bali

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