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Guardian Comment is Free: Forced marriage has always been a crime in spirit

David Cameron is right to criminalise forced marriage. This abominable, inhumane act robs people of their lives

By Sayeeda Warsi published onFriday 8 June 2012 on

In deciding to criminalise forced marriage – the act of coercing a person to marry against their will – the government has made a bold statement: that this heinous, inhumane, oppressive act is never acceptable. The decision couldn’t come soon enough. The government’s forced marriage unit (FMU) provided advice or support in almost 1,500 cases last year, but the true picture is thought to be even graver.

One study in 2009 estimated that up to 8,000 women and men, girls and boys could be entering into unwilling unions each year, often being torn from their lives in Britain to live in an unknown land with an unknown spouse.

Shockingly, a third of victims assisted by the FMU last year were minors – schoolchildren who suddenly became spouses either here or abroad – the youngest reported case is thought to have been just five years old.

We must be clear. This is not like arranged marriage, where two parties consent. In forced marriage, to resist betrothal is to risk ostracism, abuse and even murder.

Currently, the law does not go far enough. Forced marriage protection orders were introduced in 2008, but breaching an order is only a breach of civil law. The message this sends out is a dangerous one: it says that Britain equates this enforced matrimony with mere civil misdemeanours.

David Cameron was right to announce that breaching these orders would be criminalised. And he was right to consult upon making forced marriage a crime in its own right. The consultation, whose results are published today, shows 80% of respondents – including police, victims’ groups, lawyers and charities – saying that the current measures are not being used effectively.

The majority agreed that a new offence should be created. It is something for which I have campaigned for many years. I have met many victims; I fought cases involving victims when I was a lawyer. And, as I wrote here last December, I have always believed that those who use wedlock as a weapon should be vilified and criminalised.

There are, of course, those who oppose criminalising forced marriage. The main concern is that the crime will be driven underground as victims will be reluctant to criminalise their families. Sceptics say that the blunt instrument of legislation is insufficient to address such a complex, sensitive issue. They say that the law already protects people from forced marriage because it criminalises its components – such as kidnapping, assault and false imprisonment. I understand their reservations, and have even held sessions with stakeholders to discuss it with them. But the arguments against criminalising forced marriage are the arguments we saw against criminalisation of domestic violence.

Legislating against that has transformed lives. And with forced marriage it will raise awareness and it will act as a deterrent – just as it is doing in places where it has become a crime, such as Austria, Germany, Belgium, Cyprus and Denmark. Mindful of those who are too fearful of reporting their parents to the police and thus criminalising them, victims will still have the option of requesting the forced marriage offence to be dealt with as a civil matter, if they so wish.

The bottom line is this: forced marriage is a crime in spirit, and so it should be a crime in law. After all, it represents the theft of people’s freedom, the robbery of their liberty and the abuse of their life – adding up to what can only be considered an abominable crime. I am glad that, very soon, the statute books will agree.

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