Forced Marriage Seen As Abuse of Human Rights

By Kevin McCandless | July 7, 2008 | 8:17 PM EDT

London ( - As dozens of young women from Great Britain go through the horrors of abduction and forced marriage each year, the British government this month moved towards making it illegal.

Declaring that the practice was a violation of universal human rights, officials said parents and clergy who participated in such arrangements face serious prison time.

Currently, the Foreign Office says it deals with around 250 cases of forced marriage a year -- incidents where young British women are tricked into going abroad by their families and then compelled to marry strangers.

In addition, campaigners against the practice said that many more cases went unreported in the United Kingdom itself, usually involving immigrants from India and Pakistan but sometimes from Africa, the Middle East and Eastern Europe.

Government officials stressed that they weren't acting against arranged marriages -- traditional arrangements freely entered into by both bride and groom -- but ones which involved threats and violence.

"The defense of diversity is no reason to let abuse go unchallenged," said Baroness Patricia Scotland late last year. "Forced marriage is wrong and every major world religion condemns it. It is an abuse of human rights."

As part of the consultation period leading up to the introduction of specific legislation, the government said it was considering prison sentences of up to five years for anyone who participated in a forced marriage.

Though such acts can now be prosecuted as kidnapping and child cruelty offenses, ministers said making it an official crime would send a symbolic message.

During the consultation period, which ended last month, groups such as the Church of England and various police associations have come out strongly for the proposed law.
However, other campaigners said last week that it could possibly make the fight against forced marriage more, rather than less, difficult.

Melanie McCarry, a professor at the University of Bristol who's long studied the phenomenon, said that many young women would be reluctant to testify against their parents or send them to jail.

"It doesn't make sense because it's asking people to help prosecute their mothers and fathers," McCarry said. "It's not something that many young people would want to do."

In the past few years, she said the government has made commendable efforts in trying to eradicate the problem -- both through community outreach efforts and the creation of a dedicated unit in the Foreign Office.

McCarry said continuing education efforts are the best solution in the long term -- particularly when dealing with cases that involved emotional pressure and not physical abuse.

"When does coercion become force?" she asked. "When does it happen that you're doing something to please your family?"

Huma Awan, a researcher for the Council of British Pakistanis in Edinburgh, said that ignorance of the current law often prevented outsiders from helping the victims of forced marriage.

"A lot of the times police won't know what they do," Awan said. "And often teachers and nurses don't feel they have the remit to interfere in these cases."

In general, she said that women involved in forced marriages are often much younger than those in arranged marriages, and are much more isolated from the mainstream community.

In the more than 300 cases of forced marriage she's seen, she said that many immigrant parents acted because they wanted to preserve their cultural identity. Ironically, though, they only succeeded in driving their daughters away from their family and towards western values.

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