Britain has, at least going by ministerial statements, apparently grasped the difference between arranged marriages, which are part of the Indian cultural tradition, and forced marriages, unjustifiable from any standpoint. Yet it is a challenging task to tackle the problem of forced marriages. According to the British reckoning, the figures for this sordid practice are around 3,000 per year. Unofficial estimates suggest that the tally may be even higher. Most victims are known to be women aged between 15 and 24. Another 15-20 per cent of cases involve young men. About 65 per cent of known cases involve those of Pakistani origin, another 25 per cent are of Bangladeshi origin, and the rest are of Indian or various African and Eastern European origins. Individual stories are heart-rending, with many of the ‘husbands’ extraordinarily violent and abusive to the victims. The British government and Parliament have now begun taking this issue seriously. The Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) has put up a website on this problem of forced marriages, giving links to groups and helplines run by people, including former victims, who have specific experience in the field. Annually, the FCO’s Forced Marriage Unit website receives about 5,000 inquiries and currently helps about 400 victims; some British diplomatic missions abroad have taken victims into safe custody for repatriation to the United Kingdom.
Legislation raises awkward issues. Although forced marriage itself is not a British criminal offence, the violent actions that often ensue are criminal offences, and any non-consensual sex is of course rape. Many victims have pointed out that they would not have been forced into marriage by their parents had forcible marriage been made a criminal offence. Yet there is the concern that if the practice is made a criminal offence, it would not be eliminated but only go underground, preventing legal action against this abhorrent trend. Hence the British government has proceeded cautiously in this regard. The English Forced Marriages (Civil Protection) Act 2007 is only a civil measure. But the pressure to take firm action is building. Visa regulations for young married people from abroad joining British spouses have been tightened. The British Parliament’s Home Affairs Select Committee has suggested that the subjects of forced marriages and honour killings be made a compulsory part of the sex and relationships curriculum in schools. Other agencies in the U.K. are now becoming aware of this problem. But this awareness must translate into concerted efforts to stop forced marriages, which are nothing but the criminal abuse of hapless women.