A month after it was revealed that the UK has given the green light for polygamists to claim expanded welfare benefits, Britain is grappling with another conjugal practice at odds with contemporary Western standards: forced marriage.
According to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO), a forced marriage
- is one where people are coerced into a marriage against their will;
- involves duress — physical, emotional, or financial;
- is an abuse of human rights;
- cannot be justified on any religious or cultural basis;
- is not an arranged marriage. In an arranged marriage, individuals have a choice as to whether to accept the arrangement or not.
The FCO Forced Marriage Unit processes 300 cases annually, almost all involving Muslims of South Asian extract. However, a newly released study commissioned by the Home Office finds a similar number of inquiries each year in the town of Luton alone. Based on the underreporting typical of rape and domestic violence, the study's author extrapolates that the true number of incidents across the UK runs into the thousands.
MPs have also recently been briefed on hundreds of children, overwhelmingly ethnic minorities, who are missing from school: "Some MPs said they suspected young girls, and occasionally boys, were being taken out of education and forced to marry against their will — often because they were deemed to have become too Westernized."
A companion article puts a face on this tragedy:
If the police and social workers had only listened to 12-year-old Ruksana when she told them her father had threatened to send her to Pakistan to be married against her will, then she says life might have been very different.
But they did not take her seriously, she says. She ended up in a foreign country and married to a violent partner who raped her and made her pregnant, aged 15.
Baroness Sayeeda Warsi, herself a Muslim, dismissed arguments that labeling forced marriage a criminal act would only push it further underground: "We did make domestic violence a crime and we put down a benchmark that this is intolerable. Is it not now time to make forced marriages a criminal offense to say very clearly that this will not be tolerated and people will be prosecuted for committing this offense?"
For children at risk of becoming the next Ruksana, efforts to combat these violations of basic human rights could not come too quickly.