It is a disgrace that forced marriage is only a matter for civil law ? I welcome Theresa May taking steps to change this
A 15-year-old girl is midway through her GCSEs when she is taken out of school. Little do her classmates know, she has been packed off abroad to marry a man she has never met, a man to whom she has been "promised" since birth. They never see her again.
This sounds like the stuff of a bygone era, of faraway places, even fiction. But, in 2011, here in Britain, the forcing of women or girls into marriage is a sad reality for thousands of people.
I have met some of the victims. They speak about wedlock being used as a weapon and the horrors to which this can lead, such as rape, abuse and unwanted pregnancy.
While the prevalence of such practices has come to light in recent years, many myths about forced marriage remain. For example, it is assumed that it is confined to certain religions; but there are Sikh, Muslim, Hindu and Christian victims. Some think forced marriage is a rare practice; but the government estimates up to 8,000 cases a year in the UK. Some assume forced marriage affects only adults; but figures show that more than half are under 16 and some are as young as eight. Some think the victims are solely women; but 14% of complainants are actually men. Some believe it's limited to certain countries; but Brits are being sent to Afghanistan, Egypt, Bangladesh, Iran and Turkey.
For me, there is one overriding myth about forced marriage: that it is illegal. In fact, to coerce, threaten or blackmail someone into matrimony is not in itself a criminal offence. This week, the home secretary, Theresa May, launched a consultation into making forced marriage a crime in its own right. I am delighted ? after all, it is something I have been campaigning for and speaking out about over many years.
At the moment, legislation surrounding forced marriage is civil, not criminal. The Forced Marriage Act 2007 finally allowed courts to issue forced marriage protection orders when a victim, friend or local authority raises the alarm. A breach of such an order can result in up to two years imprisonment.
So why do I think it's so important to make forced marriage a criminal offence? The reason is simple: to send out an unequivocal message to communities across the country ? to teachers, schoolchildren, parents, police, neighbours, people of all cultures ? that this is against the law. That Britain's authorities will not tolerate such behaviour, and that forcing someone to do anything against their will, by violence or by coercion, is inhumane and unacceptable.
But the law does not back up society's abhorrence of such mistreatment. As a lawyer in the 1990s I remember having to improvise when it came to cases that involved forced marriage. I had clients in immigration hearings, women who had been forced to marry men abroad, and had to give evidence in order to sponsor their new spouse's entry into the UK. With their family sitting there in the public gallery, I knew women were unable to speak their mind. I often had to subtly tell the judge that I believed my client was acting under some level of duress.
However, we can't rely on every lawyer spotting the signs. We have to rely on the law being robust.
There are some who disagree with me. They say we should not interfere with other cultural practices or what is supposedly condoned by certain religions. But forced marriage is against the teachings of any religion or any civilised society.
To me, turning a blind eye to such practices is an inverse form of racism, motivated by not wanting to offend other cultures or appear racist. Others say that criminalising forced marriage will stop victims coming forward. But just look at the progress we have made in prosecuting domestic violence.
For me, it's not enough to say, as some do, that the law currently protects people from forced marriage because it criminalises its components ? like kidnapping, assault and false imprisonment. It's not enough to say we have a Forced Marriage Unit that provides invaluable protection for victims. We have to go further. Victims are told it is through duty that they should marry ? that it will bring shame upon their family if they do not acquiesce. It is our duty to show that this is wrong ? and it is our society's shame if we do not criminalise its perpetrators.
? To feed your views into the consultation, visit www.homeoffice.gov.uk/crime/violence-against-women-girls