The British government is expected to pass a law under which parents in England and Wales who force their children to marry without their consent could be jailed.
The practice is already illegal in Scotland.
Since 2008, courts in England and Wales have had the power to issue civil orders, under the Forced Marriage Act, to prohibit forced marriages -- but now, those who violate the order could be sent to jail for two years under the charge of contempt of court.
Theresa May, the Home Secretary, condemned forced marriage as an appalling practice and declared that the new law will send a strong message that it will not be tolerated.”
Prime Minister David Cameron endorsed the law, calling forced marriage completely wrong and tantamount to “slavery.”
“I want to send a clear and strong message: Forced marriage is wrong, is illegal and will not be tolerated, he said.
“Forced marriage” – which is distinct from an “arranged marriage” in which both parties must consent – is a persistent phenomenon in Britain’s large Asian community, particularly among Pakistanis and Bangladeshis. The practice also occurs among Indian Hindus, Sikhs, Arabs, Iranians and Kurds.
While data on forced marriages in Britain cannot be certain, the BBC reported that about 8,000 girls and young women are forced into unwanted marriages every year in the UK. But the actual number could be far higher since many girls are afraid to report the practice to police or their schoolteachers.
In response to this dilemma, May also unveiled a three-year £500,000($772,000) fund to assist schools in recognizing signs of a forced marriage among their students.
Cameron has shrugged off concerns that by acting against forced marriage, the government would be attacking cultural norms of Britain’s ethnic minorities.
“It is necessary to make this a crime because it is an absolutely abhorrent practice,” he said. “You are taking 15-, 16-year-old British citizens, taking them off to another country against their will, marrying them with someone against their will.”
Cameron, who has tied forced marriage to the subject of the failure by (mostly Asian) immigrants to integrate into mainstream British society, added: “That is a crime and it should be a crime. For too long in this country we have thought ‘well, it’s a cultural practice and we just have to run with it’. We don’t. It’s a crime. Listen to the stories of these women and what they've been through and how painful and difficult it was to be rescued and you know this should be a crime and treated as such by this country.”
In March 2012, British media reported on a girl as young as 5 years old who was forced into a marriage.
Amy Cumming, head of the government’s Forced Marriage Unit, estimated that almost 30 percent of the victims of forced marriage in Britain are minors.
Aneeta Prem, the founder of Freedom Charity, a British activist group that campaigns against force marriage, hailed the new law.
Forced marriage is an indefensible abuse of human rights and can result in abduction, serial rape and murder,” she said.
Criminalizing forced marriage will send out a powerful message to people that this practice is unacceptable in England and will be dealt with severely.
During a lecture at the University of Westminster in March, Prem, who is also a member of the Metropolitan Police Authority of London, said: “[Forced marriage] is a hidden crime that no one is talking about. It’s like domestic violence in the UK 30 years ago.”
There are also fears that by criminalizing forced marriage, the practice will go further underground because victims would be unwilling to see their parents or other family members go to jail.
Dr. Anita Raj, a Professor in the Division of Global Public Health at the University of California School of medicine in San Diego, indicated that one of the biggest problems in tackling force marriage lies with the difficulty in identifying them. Public health officials and police agencies sometimes mistake forced marriages with arranged marriages, which are quite distinct.
As a health scholar, I am concerned about the intersection of forced marriage with both early marriage of girls and family violence, both of which compromise the health of women and girls, Raj said. The health impact of early marriage and family violence is clear, but I think there has not been sufficient research on forced marriage to guide our understanding of its health impact directly.
One of the most well known victims of forced marriage in the UK is the British-Pakistani author Sameem Ali, who was whisked away to her native country by her parents when she was only 13 years old to marry a man twice her age. Thus began a harrowing odyssey that led to unwanted pregnancy and attempted suicides.
Now, in her 40s, she has written extensively about her troubled early life.
Forced marriage does not happen overnight,” Ali told Sky News.
I was taken out of school... and the school did not ask any questions. I was brought back to this country [Britain] at the age of 14, pregnant. I gave birth to a baby in this country, in hospital. Where were the questions?