Forced marriages - speech in the Scottish Parliament 5th. December 2008

I welcome the opportunity to contribute to this debate on forced marriages, and I welcome the consultation document that has been issued today.

The minister has outlined why the consultation will be important.

Just last week, the first forced marriage civil protection order was issued in England.

If for no reason other than the fact that the protection offered in other parts of the United Kingdom should be offered in Scotland too, it is essential that we get the consultation right and act accordingly.

I welcome the minister's decision to hold this debate during the 16 days of action against violence against women, thus placing the issue in the broader context of the position of women across the world and the prevalence of violence against women in its many forms.

I always feel rather ambivalent about the Scottish Parliament debate at this time of year, during the 16 days of events.

However, it is of course encouraging to acknowledge that we have made progress, and it is right that we take the time to highlight the positive aspects.

I believe that doing so reflects acceptance—across the chamber and beyond—of the continuing seriousness of the issue, and acceptance of the impact that violence against women has on the life chances, health and wellbeing of, and opportunities for, women and their families.

It is always refreshing to meet people who have been so resilient in their campaigning.

Such people have gathered here today on the issue of there being no recourse to public funds.

I hear what the minister said in that regard, and I urge the Scottish Government and the UK Government to work together to see how creatively they can solve the problem.

Local Women's Aid organisations ought not to be picking up the tab, and it may be that the Scottish Government can offer emergency resources to take the burden off local organisations while work on the bigger picture is sorted out.

The vulnerable women at the centre of these issues must be the focus of our actions.

Such debates always highlight just how much remains to be done to tackle violence against women in its many forms.

There is always a danger that we might be overwhelmed by the challenge and by the ways in which that violence is expressed, including domestic abuse, rape, the trafficking and enslavement of women, prostitution and forced marriage.

Those examples are experienced globally, but progress will be made through local action—step by determined step—to support individual women, families and communities.

The consultation on forced marriage should be placed in that context.

In discussing forced marriage, we continue to bear down on the broader issue of violence against women.

Forced marriage is a distinct problem and it must be challenged, but it is a problem that is shaped by the same attitudes that still mean that—although women can smash all sorts of glass ceilings and can redefine their roles and expectations—even the most talented and pioneering women can be inhibited and controlled.

Jamie McGrigor (Highlands and Islands) (Con): Does the member acknowledge that 38 per cent of the victims in forced marriages are male?

Johann Lamont: I absolutely accept that forced marriage is an issue that is not simply for women—although, because of defined roles in communities, it affects more women than men.

However, I do not in any way dismiss the suffering of some young men in such circumstances.

No matter how talented individual women are, they can be scared in their own homes, and threatened and intimidated outside, too.

Experience tells us that—with forced marriage as with other issues—caring is not enough.
Feeling for the survivors will not address the problems.

We need to understand the causes; resource the people who know how to keep women safe; and tackle the causes through education, provision and legislative action.

There is an added dimension to the debate on forced marriage—the fear of causing some kind of cultural offence.

However, as one young Asian Scot said to me, any right-thinking person must believe that it is absolutely unacceptable to force someone into marriage. [Interruption.]

Even if it happens to only one person, that is one too many.

We welcome the consultation, because it is critical to get it right—to act to protect and support women, but without the unintended consequence of forced marriage being driven underground.

However, we hope that whatever action is taken will be kept under close examination, to ensure that it is having the desired effect.

We must not close the door on any options, and we must ensure that protection is afforded to people facing the problem across the whole United Kingdom.

It is essential to have a proper understanding of the pressures on young people who may be forced into marriage—to know how difficult it is to resist forced marriage and how isolated and vulnerable a person can feel.

There is an irony in the fact that young people are sometimes forced into marriage precisely because they are challenging the roles that are expected of them.

In any provision that we make, we must understand the need to protect the individual and give them both the confidence that they will continue to be protected and the knowledge that, if they have the courage to resist, we will support them in doing that.

We must be able to offer safety, advice, the time that is needed and support in the future.

Young people in such situations need trusted intermediaries—people who understand the families' cultural and community sensitivities and who are able to rebut and resist some of the arguments that are put to the young people.

I ask the minister to reflect on how we can consult the most powerful voices—the voices of those who can talk to their own experience, which are often silenced because they do not have the confidence to come forward.

He may wish to think further about how private consultation can be undertaken with some of those who have survived and are living with their experiences.

There is also the question of education in communities that still believe that forced marriage is reasonable.
It is not an issue of religious belief; it is something that can be challenged inside communities.

People can be supported to do that important work.

There is an issue with resources.

Scottish Women's Aid's analysis of single outcome agreements shows that only seven local authorities make any mention of domestic abuse or violence against women as a local outcome.

What reassurance can the minister give that he will act to prevent those issues from being de-prioritised at a local level?

I am not sure whether he is consulting COSLA on that analysis, and I do not think that he is consulting community planning partnerships.

That might be a useful starting point for some of the discussions around the resource implications and the education and support side as well as around the broader legal matters.

When will the advice on equality impact assessments and equality responsibilities in relation to single outcome agreements be issued?
We were promised that advice, but it has not yet appeared.
What has been the role of the national group on violence against women in shaping the consultation?
The group is a powerful forum for such discussions, but I do not know whether it has discussed the issue, and if so when, or whether it plans to discuss it.

That information would be useful to us in forming our view of the consultation. [Interruption.]

What is the group's role in assessing, monitoring and considering the implications of single outcome agreements?

I welcome the debate and recognise the progress that has been made.

I welcome the consultation although, as ever, I regret that it is necessary.

Finally, I congratulate all those in the Parliament and far beyond who ensure that the issues facing survivors of domestic abuse and violence against women and those who are coping with forced marriages are kept in the public eye so that action can be taken.

I urge the minister to sustain the focus on all fronts.