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Keywords:

  • forced marriage;
  • multiculturalism;
  • criminalisation;
  • violence against women
Research Highlights and Abstract
  • The British preference for civil remedies, rather than criminal measures, regarding forced marriage is examined and an explanation for this approach, put forward.
  • The reluctance in the UK to criminalise forced marriage is traced, in part, to the influence that multicultural ideals have had on current British approaches to the practice.
  • The state's tendency to conceptualise the harms of forced marriage principally in terms of a violation of choice (rather than as a matter of long-term violence against women), is also identified as significant to the British preference for civil remedies, over criminal legislation.
  • A critical feminist analysis of UK government papers, policy documents, and Hansard debates, relating to the 2005 public enquiry on the criminalisation of forced marriage and to the Forced Marriage (Civil Protection) Act 2007, is undertaken.
  • British discussions on the proposal to criminalise forced marriage are noted as lacking consideration of arguments that identify criminal legislation as a critical means of combating violence against women.
  • The question is raised as to whether, by adopting such an approach, the state may be giving rise to a two-tier system of rights, in which minority group women are afforded a lesser protection of their human rights, as a result of their racial or cultural background.

This article examines the preference for civil, rather than criminal, measures that has emerged as the favoured policy approach for dealing with forced marriage in Britain. In particular, the article considers why, following much public and parliamentary debate, the option to criminalise forced marriage was rejected by UK lawmakers. It suggests that one explanation for this approach is the influence that multiculturalism, as a set of political ideals, has had on British policy on forced marriage in recent years. The article also identifies as significant the limited conception of the harms of forced marriage apparent in much UK government discourse, which fails to identify the practice principally as a form of violence against women, and therefore as a custom that should be subject to criminal legislation. It draws on a critical feminist analysis of UK government papers and policy initiatives dealing with forced marriage during the period of 1999–2007, in order to make this case. It concludes by raising the question of whether, in adopting a civil remedy approach, the state may be affording some women less protection of their human rights than others.