On 16th June 2014, the Law changed, making forced marriage a criminal offence, with a maximum penalty of up to 7 years imprisonment. The law not only covers those individuals forced into marriage, within England and Wales, but also where a British national is forced into marriage outside of the UK.

Recognized as a form of violence and an abuse of human rights, forced marriage is where one or both parties do not consent, or are unable to give their consent, to the marriage and abuse or pressure is exerted.

Such coercion can take many forms including threats of violence, physical or sexual violence, and emotional, psychological or financial abuse.  It can also be somewhat subtle, for example an individual being made to feel that they are bringing shame on their family if they do not go ahead with the marriage or the withholding of wages or financial support, unless the individual acquiesces and consents to the marriage, may also be a factor.

Freedom founder Aneeta Prem said “In the most tragic cases, people forced into marriage become domestic slaves by day and sexual slaves by night.’ With such instances of this form of abuse being surprisingly common, with the Home Office Forced Marriage Unit having reportedly received requests for help from some 1,300 people in 2013 regarding possible circumstances of forced marriage.  82% of the cases involving female victims, 18% males and 15% under the age of 15 years, with the cases spanning 74 countries.

Forced marriage also affects some of the most vulnerable individuals in society with children as young as 12 having been reported to have called ChildLine, with concerns of forced marriage, and there having been an uncomfortable increase of numbers in such reports, with these being up two-thirds on the previous year.

The Forced Marriage Unit (FMU), set up in January 2005, functions both within the UK and abroad, where consular help is given to British nationals, as well as dual nationals.  There is a helpline and professionals on hand to help with cases, ranging from safety advice, helping a victim of forced marriage stop their spouse relocating to the UK or the rescue of victims detained against their will abroad.

Formerly, the Courts were only able use civil methods to stop individuals being forced into marriage, however it is hoped that with criminal sanctions having now been introduced, that victims will be encouraged to come forwards, with the law potentially protecting thousands each year.  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.

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