Today’s blog focuses on Alex Jones, a forced marriage campaigner from Cardiff, Wales. Founder of the community-based organisation In Memory of Shafilea Ahmed, Alex has been raising awareness of forced marriage for over ten years. Becki spoke with Alex to find out more about his work and why he sees forced marriage as an important issue to address.
Hi Alex. Can you tell me a little about the work that you do in relation to campaigning for forced marriage?
I deliver a forced marriage campaign, which is multifaceted in its approach, across several platforms including social media and in real life as well. It’s all about engaging and empowering young people to be part of tackling forced marriage; it gives them a platform to speak out about it, to be equipped with the right information, and to be active participants in dismantling it. As well as working across social media, I also give talks to schools and colleges.
So what does a typical session look like when you deliver those talks?
It’s about addressing the main points of forced marriage: what it’s about, what it entails, that it’s part of modern day slavery and really part of a wider span of violence and is used as a means of control. We talk about the communities involved, and take people through cases such as Shafilea Ahmed and others to show the reality of these horrors.
How have people, including these schools, responded to the work you do?
On the whole, quite positive. Sometimes it can be harder getting into schools because it’s quite a congested field; but it’s all about breaking through that noise with your own individual narrative. In terms of social media, people have been quite proactive; they have become more interested in and aware of these girls’ – and boys’ – plights.
How did you become involved in this work?
When I was in school, I heard about the case of Shafilea Ahmed [you can read about Shafilea’s story here] and it really shook me up. I knew action needed to be taken because during those times, when that first happened, there wasn’t much discussion about [forced marriage] in the media or publicly. Things have gradually changed over the years but it was all linked to that one individual story. As I became more aware of the issue, I learned more about other cases. So, that was my route into it; I looked upon these young girls’ cases as a means of telling their stories to the wider public.
I started to work on a campaign when I entered university; I created posters, I wrote articles in the university newspaper, and I delivered talks. I also started to work online at that time, creating material that people can access to connect the wider public to be part of a community to take action. That’s the most important part of it, getting everybody to know that they have a voice to tackle this issue.
How did your university react to the work you were doing?
During that time, they were a little but more on board but as time went by, they changed a little because of having different issues to deal with but it’s about trying to break down those mindsets. You know, university is just as important a place as school to tackle forced marriage, not only because it affects people of all ages but also because they are a good resource in terms of people power, with things such as students’ unions.
You mentioned earlier that things are changing in this field. Can you tell me a little about how you’ve seen things change throughout the time you’ve been involved in your work with forced marriage?
Well, in a legal sense, we had the change in the law with the forced marriage protection order and now forced marriage is against the law. We’ve seen that across Europe as well and now in Australia and New Zealand. But also, in a socio-cultural sense, the media are more proactive in engaging with the subject matter, putting it in their newspapers and not being afraid to utilise people’s stories, so things have changed in that way too.
What are some of the key challenges that you encounter in your work?
Mainly people’s perceptions and attitudes. Linking back to the last question, although we’ve seen changes, we are meeting the same barriers of reluctance to act and cynical attitudes towards the subject. People are still reluctant to tackle it because they view it as some sort of cultural act. The main message is that it’s not part of any culture, but that it’s part of modern slavery, and fundamentally abuse and a crime. But those same attitudes are still resonating across different aspects of society; some frontline professionals are still reluctant to tackle it. But then, we’ve seen a growth in police forces tackling the issue, setting up specialist forced marriage units, so we’ve seen the good and the bad but there’s still a long way to progress.
What else could be done to help tackle forced marriage?
Forced marriage has to be made a priority discussion in education; it all begins with the classroom, in schools and in universities. We need to engage young people now because eventually they will become the frontline professionals of the future. If we do that, we can educate them and make an investment and greater impact going forward.
There also has to be mass engagement on the issue to change attitudes and mindsets. Mindsets are the most important thing. Forced marriage is not just a subject to be brushed off; it’s just as important as any other sort of abuse; you know, sexual violence, stalking, that kind of thing. I think it’s seen as different because it’s seen as attached to some sort of culture, but these acts occur across a whole range of cultures and ethnic groups. There is a fear to act because of a perception that it’s linked to somebody’s culture, but if you look at the individual at the heart of it then we can begin to tackle it properly.
Education is the most powerful tool for change; as the president John F Kennedy said, a mis-educated child is a child lost. It’s when people are not educated, they’re being mis-educated and they don’t know their fundamental rights. We’ve got to be active on that front.
Why do you think forced marriage is an important issue to address?
It’s probably one of the greatest human rights challenges of our time. Personally, I feel driven to be part of making a difference, to be an active participant in dismantling barriers, and in challenging and empowering change in societal attitudes. I want to use my ability to make a difference on a wider scale, as well as to those who feel that they may not have a voice by letting them know that people are fighting for their future.
One of my final questions is around your experiences as a male activist in a field that is predominantly female-oriented. I wondered if you had anything to say about that.
You have to engage men to be part of the solution as well. Men are affected by violence, too; you know, physical violence, domestic violence. We need to not just blame men for engaging in these acts – women carry out these acts against other women as well, as we saw with Shafilea Ahmed and Samaira Nazir who was strangled and stabbed by her mother. We must not have gender-specific barriers and we need to engage men to be active in the field and part of the solution; one day, they’re going to be the police officers, the teachers, the professionals. It’s a universal problem for everybody; we’ve all got to be part of the solution in protecting other people.
What’s next for you in terms of your campaigning and awareness-raising work?
I want to work on engaging universities; more importantly, I want to create an official platform like a students’ forum and to get lots of talks happening.
You can find out more about In Memory of Shafilea Ahmed by visiting the group’s Facebook page here. Alternatively, you can find Alex on Twitter at @alex_shafileaMG