A new law in England and Wales making it a criminal offence to force people into marriage sends “a powerful message”, campaigners have said.
From today, parents who force their children to marry can be punished by up to seven years in prison.
Previously, courts have only been able to issue civil orders to prevent victims being forced into marriage.
Ministers say the law will give victims the confidence to come forward and protect thousands of people each year.
It will apply if people are forced into marriage in England and Wales, as well as to UK nationals at risk of being forced into marriage abroad.
Some 82% of victims were female and 18% male while 15% were under the age of 15.
The cases involved 74 different countries with 43% relating to Pakistan, 11% to India and 10% to Bangladesh.
Home Secretary Theresa May said the practice was “a tragedy for each and every victim”.
She said the criminalisation – under the Anti-social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Act 2014 – was “a further move by the government to ensure victims are protected by the law and that they have the confidence, safety and the freedom to choose”.
Aneeta Prem, founder of Freedom Charity, which educates young people about forced marriage, said the law sent out a “powerful message that this indefensible abuse of human rights will not be tolerated”.
Jasvinder Sanghera of the Karma Nirvana charity said it was a “historical day and the right move” and that it was important for victims to report any abuse.
“Nobody is going to be forcing you to prosecute or criminalise your parents. Reporting is the first thing you have to do and it will be your choice to pursue a criminal justice process.”
Under the new law, breaching a forced marriage protection order – which can be issued by courts to prevent people being married against their will – has also been criminalised.
It now carries a maximum penalty of five years in prison.
Mak Chishty, from the Association of Chief Police Officers, said the new law would make the police’s job easier.
“It’s a very important step because for the first time it gives us a definition of what forced marriage is and gives us the ability to take people to court and get a criminal conviction and that is a very powerful message to deter people in the future,” he said.
The Home Office says a forced marriage “is one in which one or both spouses do not consent to the marriage but are coerced into it” by means including “physical, psychological, financial, sexual and emotional pressure”.
It says that “in the cases of vulnerable adults who lack the capacity to consent to marriage, coercion is not required for a marriage to be forced”.
One woman, who wishes to remain anonymous, told the BBC she was duped into travelling to Pakistan to marry her first cousin. She escaped and her family have now disowned her.
“I was 17 years old. I was told we were going on a family holiday abroad. Two weeks into the holiday my family informed me that I wasn’t going back to London and I was going to remain away to be forced into a marriage.
“I hadn’t met him before. Didn’t know him, didn’t know his name or anything about him. I demanded that I come back and finish off my studies.
“I begged them and I begged them but they said no, I had to stay and be married off. Their view of it all was that they felt I was going to become far too Westernised and bring shame onto the family and therefore they felt, in their eyes, it was the best thing to do.
“The marriage was absolutely horrendous. All the types of abuse you can think of – sexual, verbal, physical. I wouldn’t wish it on my worst enemy; it was quite vile.
“I wasn’t allowed out at all, I was more or less a prisoner in their house. I was treated like a slave. I wasn’t allowed to do anything, my ex-husband’s mum used to say to me the only reason I was there was to cook and clean and be a slave for her son at night.”
In another case, Alexander Khan said he was sent to get married by his step family who had received several thousands pounds and some land.
“When I was 13 they sent me to north-west Pakistan, and what they told me to do was sit beside this girl who was nine years old. Unbeknown to me, that was an arranged marriage and I didn’t know what was happening.
“A lot of it is cultural and – in my case – money. It was definitely to do with greed and money.”
The new law will be introduced in Scotland at a later date after MSPs voted for legislation in January.
Forced Marriage Protection Orders, which can be issued to prevent people being married against their will, were brought into Scottish law three years ago.
However, there have been no prosecutions over forced marriagesince then, the BBC has learned.
Aisha Gill of the University of Roehampton, who helped draft the new legislation, said there would be “challenges” implementing it.
“As with any law introduced, it may have unintended consequences. What we have to do is make sure victims are supported from the moment they report such an abuse, right the way through the court process, and post-court process, in terms of the outcome of a criminal prosecution,” she said.
“The challenges are in terms of giving evidence, particularly where the perpetrators may be those who are close to them i.e. family members, and the coercion and pressure that they may be subjected to in terms of withdrawing [the complaint].”
The new law will not apply to Northern Ireland but ministers there will be able to introduce their own legislation, the Home Office said.
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