Leeds case a milestone in battle to halt forced marriages

Karma Nirvana's head of learning and development Natasha Rattu. Photo: Jonathan Gawthorpe.
Karma Nirvana's head of learning and development Natasha Rattu. Photo: Jonathan Gawthorpe.

LEEDS CROWN Court was the setting of a legal first this week as a mother and father were jailed after threatening their daughter with death if she did not go ahead with a forced marriage in Bangladesh.

It marked the first time both a victim’s parents had been convicted under forced marriage legislation introduced in 2014.

Since then there have been just two others – a Cardiff man jailed in 2015 after forcing a woman to marry him and a Birmingham woman jailed in May this year for forcing her daughter to marry a man in Pakistan who was nearly twice her age.

While undoubtedly significant milestones in the growing efforts to tackle this crime, a national charity based here in Leeds says the prosecutions also show how much more needs to be done.

Natasha Rattu, Karma Nirvana’s head of learning and development, said: “We’ve had these two convictions [of parents] which is great, but in the bigger picture perhaps not so great.”

Its honour-based abuse and forced marriage helpline has received more than 37,000 calls since it was established in 2013.

And almost 300 cases of forced marriage were reported to West Yorkshire Police alone during the course of 2017.

“We’re a bit disappointed that we haven’t seen as many prosecutions but we have seen an increase in the number of reports and that’s very positive,” Natasha said.

It was a desire to encourage more victims to come forward which led the charity to campaign for more than a decade for the law’s introduction.

“What you have to remember is victims very often do not feel as though they are victims,” Natasha said. “Their families condition them to believe that if they go against them, they are the ones who are guilty.

“The law gives new confidence to victims to see that forced marriage isn’t condoned in this country. We also wanted perpetrators to have as strong a message as possible that this isn’t acceptable.”

The charity places an emphasis on educating young people – the next generation of potential victims and perpetrators – but also professionals.

It has run training programmes with 25 police forces to date, including the three which have brought successful prosecutions.

Natasha said: “It’s been very successful. However, when you look at the national statistics and the Forced Marriage Unit statistics for last year they had 1,196 cases where they gave advice or support.

“What we find quite confusing is the authorities are using other offences to prosecute perpetrators. For example, blackmail, kidnap or false imprisonment. They’re not actually using the forced marriage law.

“I think that has a lot to do with a lack of of knowledge in terms of the law. I don’t think it has been publicised as much as it could have been.”

She believes that more prosecutions under the forced marriage legislation itself would send a very strong message, something which both the victim and the lead investigator in the Leeds case acknowledged.

Speaking after Monday’s sentencing, Detective Superintendent Pat Twiggs said: “I think [the victim] has clearly recognised how important it is for her to stand up, not just for herself but for other victims who will follow.

"I know she wants her case to show other victims that they can come forward to the authorities with confidence that they will be listened to and safeguarded.”

Karma Nirvana’s helpline – 0800 5999 247 – is open weekdays, 9am-5pm. Anyone in immediate danger should call 999.