Forced marriages are now illegal in Britain

By Dipankar De Sarkar, IANS,

London : The British government Tuesday introduced stringent new laws to prevent forced marriages and protect those who have already fallen victim to a practice that is particularly widespread among Pakistani Muslim communities.

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From Tuesday anyone convicted of trying to force someone into marriage could be jailed for up to two years.

A victim, friend or police can apply for a Forced Marriage Protection Order that will forbid families from actions such as taking people abroad for marriage, seizing passports or intimidating victims.

The legislation – the first to specifically target the problem of forced marriages – follows reports that the practice is far more widespread than previously suspected.

Forced marriages – which are distinct from consensual arranged marriages – have led to murders, suicides and domestic violence in Britain.

Nearly 65 percent of reported cases involve Pakistanis but such marriages are also said to be common among Sikhs, other South Asian Muslims, Turks and Iranians.

British Justice Minister Bridget Prentice said the new law “is a powerful tool that will help ensure that no one is forced into marriage against their will and those already in such marriages will receive protection.”

Violence around forced marriages is often driven by the concept of izzat – or honour – as well as the practice of cousin marriage among some Muslims.

According to some estimates, around 3,000 cases of forced or attempted forced marriages take place every year, but many go unreported.

Young women are particularly vulnerable – a Forced Marriage Unit (FMU) set up by the government in 2005 has rescued British women in rural areas of South Asia.

And British Asian MP Keith Vaz has spoken of the need to rescue possibly hundreds of missing schoolchildren who he says may have been shipped abroad to marry strangers.

This year alone, the FMU has handled 1,500 cases of forced marriage and foreign office officials have rescued 400 British victims around the world.

Alan Campbell, Home Office minister, said: “We are determined to do all we can to support victims of forced marriage, prevent others from becoming victims and provide police and other agencies with the tools and powers they need.”

The new Forced Marriage Protection Order could require family members to reveal a missing person’s whereabouts.

British Foreign Minister David Miliband said Sunday: “Some will find it hard to believe forced marriage can still take place. But whatever the reason and whatever the community, ‘cultural sensitivity’ must never be used as an excuse for moral blindness.”

Last month, a British judge annulled the Indian marriage of a 29-year-old Sikh woman, ruling she was forced to marry her father-in-law’s nephew when she went to Punjab to attend her husband’s funeral.