Cameron promises forced marriage ban in England and Wales
David Cameron has announced a new law to impose “very tough punishments” for parents who force their children into marriage. The government is now set to make forced marriage a criminal offence.
Cameron spoke after a visit to the cross-departmental Forced Marriage Unit. The unit has been involved in 594 cases of forced marriage from January to May alone, with 45% of victims aged below 18. In 87% of all cases, the victim was female.
These official figures, however, are thought to be merely the tip of the iceberg. Some guesses have put the real number at up to five times that amount, with an estimated 8,000 girls and women a year forced into marriage.
Cameron said: “It is necessary to make this a crime because it is an absolutely abhorrent practice. It is, frankly, little short of slavery. You are taking 15, 16-year-old British citizens, taking them off to another country against their will, marrying them with someone against their will… For too long in this country we have thought ‘well, it’s a cultural practice and we just have to run with it’. We don’t. It’s a crime.”
While prohibited in Scotland, the practice of making someone marry against their will is not currently illegal in England and Wales, but this is due to change.
Until now, the strongest sanctions available have been in the form of “Forced Marriage Orders”. This resembles a restraining order against the victim’s family, yet carries no criminal punishments for those breaching it. This means police are unable to prosecute perpetrators unless evidence of a more serious offence, such as abduction or rape, becomes apparent.
The Forced Marriage Orders will continue to exist alongside the new criminal offence, allowing victims the choice between civil action, or criminal prosecution and relieving them from the pressure of having to press charges.
While campaigners have raised fears that criminalising forced marriage could deter victims from coming forward and drive the practice underground, the government has attempted to assuage worries by pledging an extra £500,000 of funding to help identify and assist those affected. A new publicity campaign will be launched and extra training given to social workers, police, lawyers and judges to help them spot the signs of forced marriage.
No clear dates have yet been set, but it is expected to be 2013 before any legislation is put before parliament.