Child marriage in the UK: in conversation with the director of ‘Red River’

‘Red River’ is an award-winning short film about Muni, a young girl from London who runs away, after her cousin and betrothed husband, at least twenty years her senior, arrives at her family home. Writer and director Emma Lindley talks to Girls Not Brides about what inspired her to make a drama about a British child bride.

Why did you decide to make this film now?

I decided this film needed to be made after attending a talk by Human Rights Watch where I realised that child marriage is a huge global issue, cutting across regional, religious and cultural contexts. I think people are often quick to assume it is a practice limited to areas like sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia.

I found out from my research that it happens here, in the UK, too. I decided to set my story in London, and have a modern British schoolgirl confronted with a forced engagement to a much older cousin from India. In the film, I wanted to show how girls like Muni are sometimes trapped by the traditions of an older generation that limit their freedom and development.

What responses have you had to Red River?

We’ve shown ‘Red River’ at the London Short Film Festival and at many other UK film festivals where it won Best Non-Multiplex Film and TweetFest Best Film Awards. It has also screened in international film markets at Cannes and Palm Springs. The responses we’ve had to the film have been very powerful. The contemporary London setting has shocked audiences because we don’t usually associate child marriage with a UK context. They have also been shocked by the contrast in age between Muni (under 14) and her fiancé Sami (late 30s).

Many people have said it’s a story that needs to be told. I wanted Muni to have some choice over how to deal with her forced engagement but also to show that her fiancé, Sami, is under a different kind of pressure despite his own doubts about how young she is. I also felt it was important to convey how deeply rooted and powerful the concept of honour is in a  forced child marriage, to the families involved.

Marriage is not necessarily seen through the western prism of romantic love, but as a joining of two families. I wanted to make a film that did not fall back on cultural stereotypes or delivered easy answers but told a story you could understand and relate to on a human level.

How big is the problem of child marriage in the UK?

I was surprised by how many girls are in danger. The Home Office estimates that between 5,000 and 8,000 people are at risk of being forced into marriage every year. As part of my research I read two powerful books by women who were forced as girls into marriage in the UK: ‘Shame’ by Jasvinda Sanghera and ‘Belonging’ by Sameem Ali.

I was struck by how the girls were under immense emotional pressure, often from their mothers, to accept a husband that was chosen for them. They risked total rejection from their families and communities if they did not agree to marry or if they chose their own boyfriend.

These books and speaking to members of the cast helped me begin to understand the family dynamic, motivations and the possible chain of events that might lead to a forced marriage. Many of the cast members were keen to tell me more about the practice of child marriage and distinguish between arranged and forced marriage. I am very grateful for their contributions to the film.

Currently in the UK, there is a draft Bill going through Parliament to standardise the legal age for marriage at 18, what does the film say about the age debate? When is a girl not a girl?

When showing the film, we found audiences were shocked by the image of a young girl of 13 or 14 being married off against her will but some found the idea of girls married at 15 or 16 less shocking. My niece is 16 and still at school studying, having fun with her friends. I would hate to think of anyone forcing her to marry so young and giving up her education and freedom, no one would expect her to.

Ensuring that 18 is the only legal age for marriage would help protect girls her age, as the current minimum age of 16 with parental consent clause creates a loophole that can be used to legitimise a forced marriage. The Bill to abolish this clause is currently making its way through the House of Lords, but a change in the law is not enough. More needs to be done to prevent girls under 18 getting married in the UK.

What do you think could help stop early and forced marriage in the UK?

Education in schools can help girls realise they don’t have to accept a dangerous situation at home. The Forced Marriage Unit provides resources such as educational packs for teachers and community workers.

Offering counselling may also be a way to get girls at risk to confide in an adult at school. Engaging with parents is a very delicate issue. I would encourage schools or educational groups to show our film to raise awareness and I hope it could be used to spark discussion.

How do you think sustainable change can be made to end child marriage in the UK?

As signatories to various human rights conventions and a donor to international development efforts we must apply our standards for developing countries to our own country and find ways to protect girls here in the UK. As well as the need to change the law here also needs to be a deeper change in attitude that goes beyond legislation.  I hope ‘Red River’ can be part of that change.

No girl should be forced into a marriage before adulthood. By educating girls and families in the UK to end child marriage, girls will be free to unleash their potential and make their own informed choices when the time is right.

If you would like help showing the film on a big screen, at a school or youth group please contact Emma at info@emmalindley.net Girls Not Brides thanks Emma for her contribution to raising awareness about child marriage in the UK.