Molinder Watson, Founder of ACE and FM

WILFRIDA HENDRICKX SI REPRESENTATIVE TO THE UNITED NATIONS GENEVA CENTRE, INTERVIEWS MOHINDER WATSON, FOUNDER OF ACTION ON CHILD, EARLY AND FORCED MARRIAGE (ACE&FM) DURING THE 16 DAYS OF ACTIVISM AGAINST GENDER VIOLENCE CAMPAIGN, NOVEMBER 2015

Mohinder Watson is a British Asian who escaped from an intended arranged marriage in the UK as a teenager. An academic researcher, Mohinder works in the field of child marriage and in 2014, founded Action on Child, Early and Forced Marriage (ACE&FM), an international NGO dedicated to advancing awareness, research and education on child, early and forced marriage, with a view to ending this practice.

In particular the NGO aims to highlight these practices amongst immigrant communities in Europe, Canada and the US, Australia and other ‘western’ countries where many people are still unaware that such practices occur. Mohinder would be interested to hear from survivors of child marriage as well as experts and academics researching the topic and can be contacted at mohinderw@bluewin.ch

Wilfrida: Why did you become involved in the issue of child, early and forced marriage?

Mohinder: This issue has personal significance for me because as a teenager I was being coerced into a marriage I did not want, to a young man chosen by my parents. For decades I was unable to speak about my experience but by chance I became involved with women’s human rights organisations in 2012 and realised that women were not speaking out about forced marriage. I then decided that I should share my experience as it had the potential to help improve understanding of the issue and also help prevent girls from going through a similar or worse experience. With the help of an international multi-disciplinary team from Switzerland, USA, Honduras, Mexico, Democratic Republic of Congo, Denmark and England we established an NGO in December 2014 to advocate against child, early and forced marriage.

Wilfrida: What do you aim to achieve with your organization?

Mohinder: Our aim is to advocate to prevent and eliminate child, early and forced marriage because this complex human rights, social, health and development issue affects millions of girls around the world, every year. We plan to do this through changing attitudes and behaviours related to CEFM. This will include advocacy at the UN with the Human Rights Council, World Health Organisation as well as working with grassroots level organisations in different countries with the aim of bridging the gap between the UN and grassroots based organisations. This network will be expanded gradually to include more countries. Other related objectives include producing advocacy and education and training materials and conducting research. A particular focus for us is the problem of CEFM amongst diaspora communities in western countries such as in Europe, (where my own experience took place) as well as North America and Australia. As part of this work, I am trying to connect with other survivors of CEFM to create a platform for advocacy as well as with other academic researchers on the topic.

To give you can example of our work so far, we started our UN advocacy work with a joint side event panel session during the March 2015 Human Rights Council session entitled “Child, Early, Forced Marriage: Turning Recommendations into Actions”. On this panel I shared my personal experience. Other speakers included Ambassador Yvette Stevens of Sierra Leone, Catherine Godin, Deputy Permanent Representative of Canada to the UN and Jane Connors who was then Director of Research at the Office of the High Commissioner on Human Rights. Nyaradzai Gumbonzvanda, the African Union’s Ambassador for ending child marriage moderated the session. Discussions from this panel were used to inform discussions in June 2015 for a Substantive Resolution on CEFM.

Wilfrida: Why do you think child, early and forced marriage is not considered a problem in many ‘Western’ countries?

“Firstly I believe we are at a point now where CEFM is increasingly being recognised as a problem in developing countries across Europe, and other places. The UK where I am from, is taking a lead role in protecting girls at risk and has for example established a special Forced Marriage Unit, a joint initiative between the Home Office and the Police. This unit provides services such as a national telephone helpline, direct intervention to protect girls at risk and awareness training to the different professional groups involved. Some groups have also been established to work on this at the European level. The issue of CEFM is already well documented in countries like Canada where the Government is very committed to addressing this issue. More recently CEFM is also being highlighted in the US and Australia. In the UK school children and staff are made aware of the issue and to be vigilant if friends disappear from school.

However one major factor is that we do not yet know the true extent of the problem amongst diaspora communities in Western countries due to the lack of reliable statistics. Perhaps this is not surprising, given we are dealing with a long standing, deeply ingrained phenomena which is both sensitive and illegal and is fiercely protected by the communities which practice it. Despite increasing awareness CEFM, it remains largely hidden from the Police and child protection agencies.

It must also be recognised that these statistics will only tell us the official numbers of cases reported to the Police, child protection agencies or NGOs. From my personal knowledge of growing up in an Asian community in England, these numbers will only likely represent the tip of the iceberg. Most girls would be too afraid to come forward to seek help or make complaints against their families or take them to court. Many girls may not even be aware that child protection agencies and other support structures exist.

Another factor why CEFM is not considered a problem in many western countries is that the absolute numbers of cases of CEFM in Europe, North America and other western countries are very small compared to Africa and South Asia so media attention is focused on the areas of highest prevalence. There may also be a lack of investment in research in western countries”.

Wilfrida: What can we as individuals do to ensure girls are not at risk?

“Unfortunately as long as parents and communities attach such high value to a girl’s virginity and family honour and consider the marriage process as a financial transaction, girls will always be at risk. Therefore root causes such as poverty and low levels of education must be addressed. However we can empower girls through education, including human rights training, provide vocational skills so they can become economically independent and encourage them to pursue their dreams, develop their critical thinking and life skills and give them confidence to challenge the relevance today of the customs that have been passed down from generation to generation. We can educate communities to help them see the benefits of allowing girls more opportunities and choices other than marriage. We can ensure teachers, police or social workers can intervene quickly to protect girls. We can educate school children to care about their friends and alert teachers and others if children suddenly disappear from school. Additionally, we can publish articles in the press to keep media attention focused on CEFM as well as highlighting its illegality”.

Wilfrida: How can NGOs like Soroptimist International support the work of grassroots groups working to stop CEFM?

“Umbrella organisations such as Soroptimist International can support local organisations financially, especially in times of austerity, provide technical expertise and help to bring national issues to the attention of the UN and global policy makers. They can help translate resolutions etc in a way that will aid their implementation on the ground and keep national NGOs abreast of developments at the UN and interpret and analyse what these mean in real terms for NGOs”.

Wilfrida: What role do you think men and boys have in stopping CEFM?

“Men and boys have a very important role to play in stopping CEFM. In fact I believe the practice cannot change without their engagement and commitment. In my own family, my older brothers largely dictated what my younger sister and I were or were not allowed to do. The rules were very clear as were the consequences if we did not adhere to them. My brothers were very strict about our manner of dress, and going out and wearing make-up were forbidden. They were overly protective to the point that we were not even allowed to join in any extra-curricular activities after school or go on school trips. My nephew who was 10 years younger than me, was trained from a young age to watch me if we were out to ensure that I did not speak to any boys. So boys from a young age should be educated about the harm CEFM does and persuaded that girls deserve the same chances in life as boys. They can help by refusing such marriages themselves if they do not want them, refusing to marry under age young girls or girls who do not openly consent to the marriage. Appropriate channels for this messaging might be to use cricket for example as this is a national sport in the Indian and Pakistani communities, like football and rugby are in other countries. It might also be helpful to involve high profile male celebrities, sports personalities or Bollywood film stars as male champions for the cause. Other popular channels may be the cinema, TV, radio etc”.

Wilfrida: How can NGO’s help girls who have experienced CEFM?

“Many NGOs now work on providing services locally to girls at risk of CEFM as well as those who are already married. The types of services provided include everything from psychological counselling, telephone help lines, financial support, help setting up a new life away from the family, education and vocational training, obtaining legal help to enable them to divorce, providing shelter and accommodation etc”.

“Soroptimist International would like to thank both Wilfrida and Mohinder for their time in taking part in the #16days campaign and we wish Mohinder every success with your NGO, Action on Child, Early and Forced Marriage.”

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