Criminalising forced marriage

The British government's decision to start consultation on the possible criminalisation of forced marriages is significant. Baroness Sayeeda Warsi, Minister without Portfolio in David Cameron's Cabinet and chair of the Conservative Party, wrote in The Guardian recently that new law was needed because coercing, threatening, or blackmailing someone into matrimony was not itself a criminal offence in the United Kingdom. Civil remedies do exist, courts can issue protection orders under the Forced Marriages (Civil Protection) Act 2007, and Scottish courts can add their own conditions. Breaches of protection orders constitute contempt and can incur a fine or a prison sentence up to two years. In the three years since the Act took effect outside Scotland, 339 orders have been issued, although the number of forced marriages was estimated to be between 5,000 and 8,000 a year. For various reasons, only a minority of these get reported to the government's Forced Marriages Unit. Followers of all major faiths are involved, with origins in South Asia, north and east Africa, Turkey, Iraq, Iran, and Afghanistan; 70 per cent of cases involve South Asian families. About 85 per cent of victims are female, one half of whom are aged between eight and 16; more male victims are starting to surface.

Unsurprisingly, the new proposal has raised concerns among the affected communities. The British government has long held that the existing criminal law on kidnapping, people trafficking, and abduction was sufficient; and as late as September 2011 Lynne Featherstone, junior Minister at the Home Office, stated there were no plans for a new offence of ‘forced marriage'. According to experts like Aisha Gill of the University of Roehampton, community and victim-support groups feel that criminalisation could discourage victims from seeking help and also work against prospective reconciliation between victims and their families. Other researchers warn that parents might evade the criminal law by sending children abroad for forced marriages. The risks of misuse of the criminal law, especially in a context of sensationalist media coverage, are real. There is a strong case for placing the emphasis on strengthening public services for prevention, protection, and victim support. But the bottom line for any civilised modern society must be absolute intolerance of such reactionary practices that denote contempt for human rights and cruelty towards the young.

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