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A letter from Sussex Place, February 2013

Ian Currie, Honorary Secretary, writes...

This month I make no apologies for a blatant piece of advertising. To celebrate International Women's Day on 8th March, the College is holding a half-day event, focusing on ending forced marriage in the UK.

2012 saw the first International Day of The Girl, which was not only an opportunity to recognise the rights and potential of all girls worldwide, but also to bring attention to the challenges faced by so many of them, including early marriage. On the day, the United Nations’ Population Fund (UNFPA) released new data predicting that if child marriage prevalence trends continue, by 2020, 142 million girls will be married before they are adults. This means that, due to a rising global population, child marriage rates are likely to increase to around 14 million girls being married per year (UNFPA, Marrying too Young).

Child marriage, takes place before one or both of the spouses has reached adulthood, and is truly a global phenomenon. This is despite the fact that it is illegal according to international – and, in most cases, national – laws. Although it is most prevalent in the developing world, there is increasing evidence of child marriage occurring within certain communities in the UK and in other developed countries.

This is a complex issue as some parents may offer their children up to marriage on cultural and social grounds and it is difficult for us to judge them by our standards. What is clear is that these children are under the care of their guardians and many will have no say or choice in the matter.

In the case of forced marriage, women (and men sometimes) are coerced and threatened into marriage. Again, there are cultural sensitivities involved that we, as doctors, need to be aware of. We need to have systems in place to ensure that our patients are offered the best care and support that is available to them.

The number of British children being forced into marriage is hard to gauge, as these marriages are not usually officially registered. We do know however that 14% of calls to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office’s (FCO) Forced Marriage Unit helpline during 2012 were regarding the marriage of children under 15 years old. The British government has demonstrated a strong political will to tackle forced marriage in the UK, yet awareness of its extent and consequence both here and in the developing world is limited.

So why is the College running such an event? In February 2012, David Cameron announced plans to make forced marriage in the UK a criminal offence, and I believe the legislation is to be passed imminently. It is also an opportunity to work ever more closely with the RCM, as midwives are often the first point of contact to women who have been forced into marriage. Other stakeholders, including Karma Nirvana and the Iranian and Kurdish Women's Rights Organisation (IKWRO) will share their experiences of working with women who have experienced forced marriage and the systems they have in place to support these women.

Forced marriage is a shocking infringement of human rights, and the rights of the individual. It has many significant and worrying consequences including: higher rates of maternal mortality and morbidities as well as associated violence, rape and sexual abuse. It limits opportunities for education for girls and is associated with harmful traditional practices including female genital mutilation. Ultimately it is a severe threat to combating poverty and the achievement of the Millennium Development Goals.

This hugely important event aims to raise awareness amongst doctors, midwives and other healthcare professionals about the warning signs and symptoms of women who have experienced forced marriage and/or domestic violence. If you cannot attend, I would at least encourage you all to read the APPG Population, Development and Reproductive Health’s report on Child Marriage in the UK and the Developing World, A Childhood Lost.

Ian Currie
RCOG Honorary Secretary