Forced marriages outlawed in UK

(Photo: Roger Kirby)

The UK has today brought into effect a law which marks forced marriage as a criminal offence.

New legislation means that anyone found guilty of forcing another person into marriage in England and Wales faces a prison sentence of up to seven years, and the law also applies to British nationals forced into marriages without their consent abroad.

A proposed change in law was first announced in 2012, when Prime Minister David Cameron declared: "Forced marriage is abhorrent and little more than slavery. To force anyone into marriage against their will is simply wrong."

He continued: "I want to send a clear and strong message: forced marriage is wrong, illegal and will not be tolerated".

Home Secretary Theresa May, who has condemned forced marriage as "a tragedy for each and every victim", has now welcomed the new legislation, saying the UK is at the forefront of the campaign to end the practice which is particularly prevalent in South Asian cultures.

"I am proud to say that the UK is already a world-leader in the fight to stamp out this harmful practice. Our Forced Marriage Unit (FMU) runs a hotline providing direct help to victims and also trains frontline professionals and communities leaders to ensure that they know how to spot the signs and handle suspected cases," she wrote in a blog published on ITV's Good Morning Britain website.

"I am determined that the new legislation will help to give people confidence, safety and the freedom to choose."

Recent figures released by the FMU show that it dealt with a shocking 1,302 cases of forced marriages in 2013.

Fifteen per cent of these involved victims under the age of 16, the legal age of consent in the UK, while 58 per cent of victims were aged between 16 and 21.

Eighty-two per cent were female, and in 12 cases the victim identified themselves as lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender.

Forced marriage is a growing issue of concern throughout the UK - the NSPCC revealed last week that the number of children calling ChildLine to express concern that they may become a victim of the practice trebled between 2011 and 2013; jumping from 55 in 2011 to 141 in 2013.

Campaigners have welcomed the new law, which would also see those who attempt to breach a forced marriage protection order prosecuted.

Mak Chishty of the Association of Chief Police Officers told the BBC: "It's a very important step because for the first time it gives us a definition of what forced marriage is and gives us the ability to take people to court and get a criminal conviction and that is a very powerful message to deter people in the future."

The Church of England's Mission and Public Affairs Council has in the past branded forced marriage "morally and legally wrong".

"The Christian description of marriage as a voluntary union for life between one woman and one man, to the exclusion of all others, has its roots in the early biblical stories in Genesis," retired Bishop of Southwark Tom Butler said in 2008.

"Marriage has been understood in the Christian tradition as a sign of the love between Christ and his Church, which is freely given, not forced. Therefore what essentially makes a true marriage in the Christian understanding is the couple's voluntary consent to a lifelong monogamous union.

"No one should enter into marriage lightly or selfishly but reverently and responsibly," he concluded.

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