Forced Marriage: Who are the experts?
A member of our team recently attended the Forced Marriage: The Bigger Picture hosted by Shakti Women's Aid. The conference itself was excellent with discussions on the criminal and civil laws of forced marriage legislation in England, Wales and Scotland as well the legal position of forced marriage as understood by the Home Office and Foreign and Commonwealth Office. There were presentations from Rights of Women, Broken Rainbow, Imkaan, and Shakti Women's Aid. The presentations covered lack of shelter spaces, especially for members of the LGBT community, racism which posits Forced Marriage as an Islamic issue rather than recognising that is a gendered crime found across all faiths (and that groups within specific countries which practise forced marriage represent specific faiths and specific migration to that country).
Unfortunately, the conference was derailed by two people who felt that their expertise was more important than that of the panel. These two people, in particular one man who worked in child protection within Scotland felt the need to interrupt, speak over and denigrate the panelists. Whilst the chair was extremely good at intervening and refocusing the panels, we were extremely disappointed by the behaviour of these audience member who also felt it necessary to answer questions directed at the panel. The child protection officer's behaviour was extremely concerning insofar as he was suggesting that his local authority had no problem with child protection due to their stringent policies. His utter refusal to understand that policies don't always protect children is deeply worrying. His dismissive language reminded us of the statements from staff in Sheffield, York, Nottingham and Rotherham who chose to ignore the issue of child sexual exploitation within their communities. Whether he meant to or not, this man implied that he was not interested in understanding the complex issue of forced marriage and that it would not be a problem within his community because of "policies". Policies do not protect children. Adults who listen and who do not interrupt protect children.
We left the conference disappointed that panelists were treated so rudely and worried about the children living in this man's locality. If he could not listen to experts at a conference, would he be willing to listen to reports from staff or service users? Are there children at risk who don't fall within the "policies" developed? What good are policies if staff ignore them?
We have called for mandatory specialist retraining of all politicians in domestic and sexual violence and abuse. We expect child protection officers to have this training but we know that they don't. We need better training and we need management in family and children's services who understand the reality of gendered violence - not ones who dismiss the possibility of exploitation because of "policies" to prevent it.