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UK forced marriage victims much younger than previously thought

Foreign Office reveals cases from Italy, Holland, Australia, Indonesia and Nigeria, with one in five victims a man, and ages ranging from five to 87.

Britain's forced marriage victims are being coerced to marry in more far flung places and at a much younger age than previously thought.

Last year more than half of the 1,500 cases the Foreign Office dealt with were connected to families in Pakistan, but cases also came from Bangladesh, India, Afghanistan, Italy, Holland, Australia, Thailand, Indonesia, Nigeria and Iraq. One in five victims was a man. Ages ranged from five to 87.

In each case of forced marriage, there are often several perpetrators. Yet almost no one is prosecuted in the UK.

There is general agreement that forcing a person to marry against their will is a human rights abuse and that the authorities should do everything possible to protect victims from forced marriage. But that's where the consensus ends. The UK Government is considering whether to make forced marriage a new criminal offence and opinions are divided about the potential risks and benefits.

The majority of professionals, grass roots community workers and victims are against criminalisation, warning it will drive a hidden problem further underground, increase the risk of retaliation and more victims will be abandoned overseas. Pointing to the fact that there has never been a prosecution since Female Genital mutilation was outlawed in 2003, they want scarce resources targeted at education and prevention.

Others vehemently believe that criminalisation would send a powerful message that forced marriage is not tolerated in Britain, and would act as a deterrent to families who condone such coercion. France, Germany, Belgium, Norway and Denmark have all now brought in specific laws making forced marriage a criminal offence and the early reports are broadly favourable.

Forced marriage is one in which one or both spouses do not, or cannot (for mentally incapacitated individuals) consent to marrying but are coerced. It is completely different from an arranged marriage where families are involved, but there is consent.

The coercion can include physical, psychological, financial or sexual pressure from parents or extended family members. At the most extreme end, coercion can involve abduction, kidnap, false imprisonment, rape and even murder, including "honour killings".

Since November 2008, victims can seek protection through the Forced Marriage Civil Protection Act. By the end of 2011, 414 forced marriage protection orders had been issued by the courts - nearly three times the number anticipated by the government. The number of orders, used to stop a potential forced marriage or annul one that has already taken place, has increased year on year.

Solicitor Anne-Marie Hutchinson of Dawson Cornwell has played a crucial role in developing civil protection for forced marriage victims. "All the successful advances in law have been made under the principle that the first duty is to protect, not to penalise, not to have an emblematic deterrent, but to protect.

"Those of us who act for victims on a day to day basis in the court process know that the majority of these young people just want out of the situation; their next biggest concern is making sure their families do not get in to trouble. If we could not give them assurances that there will be no punishment for their families, then most would simple go through with it."

In 2008 the Government published guidance which made it a legal duty for all statutory services - police, schools, health and social services - to ensure forced marriage cases were dealt with safely and effectively. A review published in December 2011 found implementation had been poor and patchy, with too many examples of professionals doing nothing because they feared accusations of racism or cultural insensitivity. A lack of understanding plus poor communication between services can often make the situation far worse.

The government estimates that a new criminal act would cost £15m over the next decade, the vast majority spent on one hour training courses for police officers. Given the hundreds seeking advice from the Forced Marriage Unit last year, the estimate appears to be a terrible indictment on the number of victims the government believes will come forward or worse still, the number of prosecutions it expects to succeed.

One police expert told The Independent that most police forces were woefully unqualified to deal with the complexities involved in helping victims of honour based violence and forced marriage, despite recommendations by Acpo to train officers in 2008. "Many officers don't even know about civil protection orders or that taking away a passport can actually increase a victim's risk, so the idea that one hours training will be enough for a new criminal act is complete rubbish."

Critics insist that the money would be better spent on filling gaping holes in training for professionals and bolstering those NGOs helping potential victims and changing attitudes.

Hannana Siddiqui from Southall Black Sisters, an organisation that has worked with forced marriage cases for almost 30 years, said: "The Government's message is contradictory; on one hand they want to be seen to doing something, yet they're also making massive cuts to services and legal aid. I think they are just trying to appeal to women voters."

She added: "There are sufficient criminal laws to cover forced marriage such as kidnap, abduction and child abuse, the question is about the willingness to uses those laws, if the victim wants that kind of intervention. We do not need a new law that will be ineffective and actually drive the problem even further underground."

Jasvinder Sanghera, founder of NGO Karma Nirvana, ran away from home as a teenage to escape the threat of forced marriage, and is the most vocal criminalisation supporter. Her organisation has been canvassing opinion and believes the public support a new law. "We want a specific criminal offence because at the end of the day this is a barbaric practice and the government needs to send a very strong message that it will not be tolerated in the UK: it would mean police deal with it more seriously."

Diana Nammi, director of the Iranian and Kurdish Women's Rights Organisation, agrees. "There is a moral imperative for the UK to criminalise forced marriage in order to let women and girls know that the law is on their side."

IKWRO interviewed 15 survivors of forced marriage and domestic violence from the Iranian, Kurdish and Afghan communities. They all said making forced marriage a crime would make parents think twice before forcing their daughters to marry and would empower girls with knowledge that what is happening to them is wrong.

In contrast, research by the JAN Trust, a London based women's charity, found that 85 per cent of 1,000 Pakistani women reported at least one forced marriage in their family. But, 77 per cent said they would not seek help from the police as this would lead to a complete break with their communities, and could even lead to violent retaliation as a result of the 'shame' bought on the family.

Shahien Taj from the Henna Foundation works with complex cases of honour based violence and forced marriages, often assisting the courts. "I don't know one victim who would have been strong enough or consistent enough to see through a criminal trial. All it would do is let a handful of people sit back and think 'I did it'. It would not be in the best interest of victims."

A report by the Home Affairs Select Committee last year found monitoring compliance with protection orders was poor, and there was a lack of effective action when a breach was found. Official statistics suggest there have only been five recorded breaches, with only one person, Lydia Erhire, ever imprisoned for breaching an order. Erihire was sentenced to eight months last year for contempt of court after she refused to sign documents allowing repatriation of her son, allegedly taken to Nigeria against his will.

There is almost universal support for proposals to make breaching an order a criminal offence.

Teertha Gupta QC from 4 Paper Buildings, who has acted for at least 250 victims in civil proceedings, said: "It's too early to say whether the civil act has been fully effective, so why try and fix something that isn't broken? It is a matter of the police using the tools they already have to prosecute for assault and kidnap and abduction, if they want to do something, why not give judges the power to consider forced marriage as an aggravating feature when sentencing? This feels little more than political window dressing."

A FCO spokeswoman said: "We are committed to continuously adapting and improving our approach to ensure that the UK offers the best possible protection to victims of forced marriage; we will publish the summary [of the consultation] in due course."