Aidan Jones, Christian Science Monitor, July 2, 2009
[G]overnment figures released today suggest the true scale of Britain’s forced-marriage problem is only now beginning to emerge. It is estimated that between 5,000 and 8,000 cases of forced marriage occurred in Britain last year, according to the Department for Children, Schools, and Families.
Most are teenage girls from Britain’s large Pakistani, Bangladeshi, and Indian communities. They’re married off, according to the report, to bond the young women to their community, keep clan promises, or as a way to provide a British visa for a foreign family member or friend.
The figures have delivered a fresh jolt to Britain’s multicultural paradigm, which until recently handled reports of forced marriage and associated “honor crimes” as cultural issues, beyond the remit of the justice system.
But confronted by high-profile cases of murder, abduction, and forced marriage, the British government is talking tougher, hoping to establish the primacy of British law and identity over sectarian interests–an argument reignited by French President Nicolas Sarkozy last month when he promoted a ban on Muslim women wearing the burka.
Guidelines for police, teachers, doctors
The report is accompanied by new guidelines issued to police, teachers, and family doctors on recognizing the warning signs of a forced marriage.
The guidelines were released ahead of the school summer holidays–a period when hundreds of children are known to be taken abroad and married off, some never to return to Britain.
Part of a Western European push back?
Several hotlines across the country field calls from people fearing they will be married against their will. A number staffed by Britain’s Forced Marriage Unit (FMU) has received 770 calls so far this year. The FMU is a team run jointly by the Foreign and Home offices.
“We took a call from a women in the toilet at Heathrow Airport,” says Sarah Russell, head of the unit. “We managed to get the police to her before she was flown out of the country, but there are many others out of our reach.”
The FMU carries out “rescues” abroad with the help of local police forces, but tracking people across the rural backwaters of Pakistan and Bangladesh is a tough task, made harder by the threat to victims’ safety if a family finds out they have been reported.
New laws on the books
But Britain’s new efffort has its critics, who say that the tougher message will not be heard in the Urdu-, Punjabi-, and Sylheti-speaking corners of London, Birmingham, and Manchester until there is a specific criminal offense for forcing someone to marry.
Currently, judges can make an order under the Forced Marriage Act, which became law in November, to stop potential victims being taken abroad and married against their will. Orders can also release a victim from the control of their family. But no one has stood trial for forcing a marriage.