LONDON (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – Forced marriage is cruel, unacceptable and will not be tolerated, Britain's interior minister said on Monday, as new legislation banning the practice came into effect.
Under the new law, which covers England and Wales, anyone found guilty of forcing someone into marriage faces a maximum seven-year jail sentence. The law also applies to British nationals at risk of being forced into marriage abroad.
"Your wedding day should be the happiest day of your life, when you can look forward to a new life with the person you love," Home Secretary Theresa May said in a blog.
"But for victims of forced marriage, their wedding signals the end of their youth and freedom. They are robbed of the right to choose their future and all too often women will suffer physical, emotional, financial and sexual abuse at the hands of their new husband."
She said every case of forced marriage was a "tragedy" and that the practice, which campaigners say puts thousands of women at risk every year, must stop.
Last year, the government's forced marriage unit dealt with 1,302 cases. Eighty-two percent of the victims were female and in 15 percent of the cases, the victim was under the age of 15.
Cases involved 74 countries including Pakistan, India, Bangladesh, Afghanistan and Somalia. Ninety-seven cases involved victims with disabilities and 12 involved victims who were lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender.
May said individual stories were "heart-rending", citing the case of a 17-year-old girl who was duped into going to Turkey on what she believed would be a holiday.
Instead, the teenager, who had been planning to go to university to study law, was married off. Forced to slave away cooking and cleaning for her new husband, she was only ever fed scraps and leftovers.
The young woman suffered sexual, mental and physical abuse before gaining the courage to tell her family what was happening to her and leaving her husband, May said.
"This is a hidden crime, with victims often too afraid to speak out against the people who are forcing them to sign their lives away," May said.
Many campaigners who have lobbied for years to make forced marriage a criminal offence welcomed the new law. However, others said victims would be reluctant to testify against their parents and other family members.
"Criminalisation is a crucial deterrent," said Diana Nammi, founder and executive director of the Iranian and Kurdish Women's Rights Organisation (IKWRO).
"Many of our clients have told us that if forced marriage had been criminalised when they were facing it, their families may not have gone ahead with it because they would have abided by the law."
Nammi dismissed fears that criminalisation would force the issue underground. She noted that since Prime Minister David Cameron announced the intention to bring in the law two years ago, reporting of forced marriage had almost doubled.
“The same arguments were raised against criminalising marital rape but far from going underground, reporting has increased four-fold," she said in a statement.