Joan Smith: 'Marriage' that is just a form of abuse

Astonishingly, it is not a criminal offence in this country to force someone to get married. We know that families use threats, emotional blackmail and pressure from religious leaders, but they're not breaking the law unless they resort to violence. That seems set to change, with an announcement expected today that ministers intend to make forced marriage a crime.

The Government's Forced Marriage Unit dealt with 1,468 cases last year. Women's organisations report that "scores" of women and girls contact them every week, saying they fear they'll be beaten or killed if they resist. Karma Nirvana, the organisation set up to help victims by Jasvinder Sanghera after she ran away from a forced marriage, gets 5,000 calls a year to its helpline.

I don't think we should look away from what forced marriage involves. Most of the victims are women – 78 per cent, according to the Forced Marriage Unit – and it exposes them to repeated rape by men they haven't chosen and quite possibly despise.

It is common for girls to be married to much older men or relatives, but what's beginning to emerge is a scandal about the targeting of the most vulnerable people in our society.

Government statistics show that 56 of last year's cases involved victims with learning disabilities, while another 10 identified themselves as gay or lesbian.

The Labour government acknowledged that forced marriage was a problem but introduced "forced marriage orders" in the civil courts instead of criminalising it. Historically, there has been a reluctance to "stigmatise" the communities where the practice takes place, and a tendency to listen to "community leaders" who are usually male, conservative and elderly. As Labour found to its cost in the Bradford West by-election, such people aren't representative, and that's especially true on matters to do with gender. There are now many organisations representing black and ethnic minority women, from the long-established Southall Black Sisters to Karma Nirvana and Imkaan.

Imkaan recently produced a shocking report on the extent of "harmful practices" – forced marriage, "honour-based" violence and female genital mutilation – in London. Its director, Marai Larasi, suggested that these problems were not being properly addressed because of fears of being labelled "culturally insensitive".

Not all women's organisations agree that forced marriage should be criminalised, but Ms Sanghera has campaigned to toughen the law. A government consultation has already suggested that breaching a forced marriage order should become a criminal offence, but David Cameron is expected to go further and announce a specific crime of forcing someone to marry.

I hope he does, but I'd also like to see a shift in thinking. "Harmful practices" affect women in ethnic minority communities but the underlying issue is control.

Politicians should condemn forced marriage as unequivocally as any other form of domestic abuse, which is what it really is.