London, England — Parents in the UK who force their children into marriage could be jailed for up to seven years under new legislation outlawing the practice, but campaigners are divided over whether the threat of criminal trial and tough punishments will deter perpetrators, or simply deter victims and those at risk from coming forward.
The new crime of forcing someone to marry against their will, which came into force earlier this month, gives police and prosecutors the power to pursue anyone suspected of using physical, psychological, emotional or financial pressure to coerce others, typically relatives, into marriage.
The government’s Forced Marriage Unit last year dealt with more than 1,300 suspected cases, with two-thirds of those involving families of South Asian origin. Eighty-two percent of victims were female, while 15 percent of cases involved girls or boys under 16, the minimum legal age of marriage in the UK.
But the government and campaigners agree that known cases are the tip of the iceberg, and say they hope the new law will provide protection for thousands of victims.
Authorities last summer put welfare services and airports on alert amid concerns that some parents were sending their children abroad to be married, when their disappearance during the long school holiday would not raise suspicions.
“What has changed is that when victims come forward, the police have now got the power to really help them,” said Aneeta Prem, the founder of Freedom, a welfare charity campaigning against forced marriage. “They can deal with forced marriage in its own right, rather than waiting for other crimes associated with it to be committed.”
Freedom launched a campaign last week highlighting the consequences of the new law, and Prem said the charity was working closely with the government to ensure it would have an effect.
“Before, those involved in frontline services, such as police or social workers, were very nervous about talking about forced marriage because they thought it was culturally sensitive. Now it is on the statute books, there is more confidence to talk about it more openly.”
But can the law be enforced?
Other campaigners, though, said they feared the introduction of the law could be detrimental to grassroots work already being done to raise awareness about forced marriage and provide protection for those at risk.
Sameem Ali, a councillor in Manchester who last year told Al Jazeera about her own experience of beingforced into marriage at the age of 13, said criminalisation would discourage many of those at risk from raising their concerns for fear they could end up in a courtroom testifying against members of their own families.
She said similar laws had proved ineffective in other countries, while the criminalisation of female genital mutilation in the UK in 1985 has yet to achieve a single prosecution.
“I’ve spoken to hundreds of young people [in schools], and it is the loud ones at the front who say ‘Yeah, I’ll put my mum in jail,’ but they are not the ones who are going to be forced into marriage. It is the quiet ones at the back who shudder at the thought of even considering something like that,” Ali told Al Jazeera.
“If you look at places likes Denmark [where forcing someone into marriage has been a crime since 2008], not one person has been taken to court. It hasn’t gone away, it is just that people are scared to come forward and put mummy and daddy in jail.”
The fact that most forced marriages took place abroad also raised practical questions about how the law would be enforced, and what good it would do those already stranded in other countries, she added.
“Most of these marriages happen in places like Pakistan, India, and Bangladesh. What is the government going to do? Are we going to spend thousands of pounds trying to gather evidence to prosecute the parents of these young people? Let’s be honest, nobody is going to take on those costs.”
Ali said a focus on criminal prosecutions also risked driving the problem further underground, and undermining existing civil legislation, under which those at risk of being forced into marriage can seek a court protection order. Dozens of protection orders have been issued annually since their introduction in 2007.
“Protection orders are proven and they are working. We have managed to raise awareness and promote that route, and now all of that work is going to be pushed aside,” said Ali.
‘Forced marriage is already underground’
Prem accepted it would be difficult for victims of forced marriage to give evidence against family members, but said that was no excuse for authorities not to seek to punish their wrongdoing. “Forced marriage is already underground. It is already a hidden crime and we haven’t succeeded in stamping it out by doing nothing,” she said.
“No one is suggesting it will be easy for anyone to come forward. It is impossibly difficult for people to testify against their parents and their family and people that they love. What we have to do is make sure they are given help and guidance so they are not left abandoned on their own.”
But some community leaders expressed concern that the new law could be misapplied as a result of misunderstandings or family disputes, or because of grey areas involving language or cultural issues such as potential confusion between forced and arranged marriages.
“Forced marriage is a criminal act. Some people considered it slavery and there is no place for slavery in the modern world,” said Muhammad Abdul Bari, a former leader of the Muslim Council of Britain and East London Mosque, which serves a predominantly South Asian community. “But on any legal issue, there is the requirement of absolute clarity,” Bari told Al Jazeera. “These are social and emotional issues, and it is just a matter of making sure that innocent people are not punished.”
Bari said existing criminal law covering offences such as physical and sexual abuse and abduction already provided adequate grounds to prosecute anyone involved in forcing someone into marriage.
Prem said police, prosecutors, and other public officials understood the difference between forced and arranged marriages. “The difference is very clear: There is consent or there is coercion. As soon as there is pressure or coercion, even if it is very subtle, that’s when it becomes forced. Everyone is very clear about that.”
‘It will take a lot of work’
Aisha K Gill, a criminologist at the University of Roehampton who helped draft the new legislation, said the creation of a specific forced marriage offence had significant symbolic value and demonstrated that the government was taking the issue seriously.
But she said victims’ wishes needed to be of primary concern, and that access to legal aid – which has been curtailed under the current government’s austerity programme – needed to be guaranteed for those who preferred to seek protection orders under civil law, rather than redress through the criminal system.
“Any deterrent effect on perpetrators is likely to be offset by the fact that victims may be deterred from seeking help for fear that family members will be prosecuted in the criminal courts,” Gill told Al Jazeera.
Prem said the effectiveness of the law would ultimately be proven by successful prosecutions and the eventual eradication of forced marriage from British society.
“This is not a miraculous thing that will stamp it out overnight. But if we are having the same conversations in two years’ time and nobody has been prosecuted, then I will be asking very serious questions. It is possible that we could eradicate forced marriage in this country in our lifetime. It is possible, but it will take a lot of work.”
This article was originally published on Al Jazeera on 1 July 2014.