Abusing a child’s human rights by forcing them into marriage is a global problem that spreads far across different cultures, ethnicities and religions. With 1 in 5 girls in the world said to be married before turning 18, the issue is as hidden as it is serious. Worldwide gender inequality permeates harmful traditions, silencing young girls and confining their bodies to a lifelong struggle of grooming. Consequently, the fundamental right to education for children is very often jeopardised by forced and early marriage.
Many young girls who are forced into marriage are deprived of their most basic rights with the access to education among the most common. The majority of child brides are expected to drop out of school during the preparatory period of their marriage with minimal hope of ever returning to education. A large majority of these girls are then made pregnant before they turn 18 and give birth to children who are also denied their right to education and married early, continuing on the cycle of abuse and poverty.
A forced marriage is defined as when one or both spouses are forced into a marriage without the consent that marriage – in all religions – require; or when consent has been provided, the victim has been pressured against their will. Harmful gender stereotypes and inherent discriminatory practices result in females majorly outnumbering men in the sphere of forced marriage and to epidemic proportions. Each year, 12 million girls are married before the age of 18 each year, equalling to a colossal scale of 23 girls every minute or nearly 1 in every 2 seconds.
A campaign by Plan UK, Because I am a Girl, found many case studies in which girls were forced to drop out of school and never given the right to vital learning and qualifications. 14 year old Madina from Sudan, told the charity of how she “was forced to leave school in order to get married.” “I was very young then” she adds, “I wish other girls don’t suffer like me”. The campaign report also discusses the “cycle of poverty” which many victims of forced marriage find themselves in:
“Married young, girls are frequently taken out of school [and are at high risk of] early pregnancy. If she survives childbirth her children are less likely to grow up healthy and go to school, continuing the cycle of poverty for generations to come”.
The campaign illustrates the sheer volume of forced marriage victims who are forced to drop out of school after their marriage and often becoming pregnant. Motherhood and wifehood then become their first priority and they spend the rest of their lives illiterate, unable to pursue any qualifications which could liberate them from their situation.
Forced Marriage in the UK
An investigative report by The Times has revealed the issue of forced marriage to be shockingly close to home, with a high number of exploited minors slipping through the cracks in the UK’s immigration system. Tricked into a holiday abroad by their family members, British children are forced to marry men they have never met, subject to sickening acts of violence and rape in case of their refusal. Victims are stolen away from the intervention of friends or concerned school teachers, leaving them as having no choice but to comply. When returning to the UK, those that do come forward to the authorities are often disregarded by the government. Time and time again, the Home Office fails to challenge visa applications by granting abusers a UK Spouse Visa and allowing them to settle in the UK.
In 2017, the Forced Marriage Unit (FMU) handled 930 cases that involved women as well as another 256 male victim cases. Additionally, the charity helpline Karma Nirvana receive an astonishing 700-800 reported cases per month. Yet since being deemed a criminal offense in 2014, only two forced marriage cases have resulted in prosecution with the first successful conviction only occurring in May this year. With the practice being largely unpublicized, this has led many to believe that thousands of forced marriage victims in the UK could be living behind closed doors, cut off from a world of education and opportunity.
Under UK immigration rules, a victim should be able to block their abuser’s spouse visa application. Refusing to sign the sponsorship document makes the victim a ‘reluctant sponsor’, meaning that the visa should not be issued. However, out of the 175 reluctant sponsors last year, only 88 were investigated further and even more disturbingly, almost half (42) of the visa applications were granted regardless.
The hypocrisy of Home Office officials has been heavily criticised for ‘turning a blind eye’ to forced marriage cases whilst tediously searching for irregularities in applications from genuine couples. With fears of appearing racist or culturally insensitive, the Home Office has been revealed as granting visa applications to abusers without any contact between officials and applicants. Meanwhile, many couples fail to fulfil the stringent Spouse Visa requirements, falling at the hurdle that entails ‘proving’ their relationship is long-lasting and genuine.
Protocol 1, Article 2 lays out the right to education in the UK Human Rights Act of 1998, which states that: “No person shall be denied the right to education” and it is the parent’s responsibility to ensure this right is upheld. In addition to the Human Rights Act, the Education Act of 1996 places a legal duty on the parent(s) or guardian(s) of all children aged between five and sixteen. Because of this, the protection of children rests upon parental responsibility, making it imperative that children are kept in a safe pair of hands and away from the control that legally binding marriage rights impose on their future. Girls must be protected by their schools and by government policy in order to ensure they are able to access education.
The Power of Education
With forced marriage abusers continually being permitted to exploit their ‘spouse’, this usually means the end to a child’s education. Research by Girls Not Brides found that over 60% of women aged 20-24 with no education were married before they were 18. Forced marriage practices encompass the troublesome view that marriage marks a girl’s transition into adulthood, making the investment into their education no longer necessary. Instead, girls are expected to adopt their new role of wife or mother, solely taking care of the home, their ‘husband’ and their children. Those who live far or have children to look after will then find themselves unable to resume their education, forced by their abusers to remain hidden within their homes.
Tackling forced marriages proves to be severely problematic when the right to education is taken away from children who lack the resources and knowledge of their human rights to file a statement against their oppressors. With the issuing of a public statement being the last and only chance a forced marriage victim gets to block their future of torment, many victims do not have high enough standards of literacy to form a credible claim against their abusers.
Furthermore, education is an extremely powerful tool in the prevention of child marriage. The longer a child stays in school, the less likely they will be subject to forced marriage before the age of 18. In fact, girls with no education are 3 times as likely to marry by 18 as those with a secondary or higher education. By providing minors with access to safe, quality secondary education, both girls will require the skills, knowledge and confidence in recognising and communicating their rights. This is recognised by a UN resolution, which on the subject of forced marriage, states that ‘educational opportunities are directly related to women’s and girls’ empowerment, employment, and economic opportunities’ (PP13). With this in mind, it is vital that schools support a curriculum for girls that are relevant to their needs, emphasising their rights and abilities whilst equipping them with skills that support female independence and pride.
The UK visa immigration rules favour male abusers over vulnerable girls. For oppressed children who face lifelong burdens of forced marriage, the chances of ever wearing a school uniform again are erased once their abuser’s visa application has been granted. Currently, teenage brides who are reluctant to sign for a visa apparently do not warrant suspicion or scepticism from the Home Office. With the only option available to forced marriage victims being to produce a public statement, the government desperately needs to make radical changes to allow victims to come forward safely and privately, without facing the risk of extreme violence. The UK’s visa application process should expose the crimes of male abusers, not support them. Investigations into forced marriages need to be pervasive and thorough to ensure that all children can have access to a full education and a bright future.
This article has been provided by Maddie Grounds, political correspondent at the Immigration Advice Service, a team of specialist UK immigration lawyers.