Society's shame: The five-year-old girl forced into marriage


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A girl aged five and an 87-year-old woman were among almost 1,500 forced marriage victims helped by the Forced Marriage Unit in 2011, new figures reveal.

The figures emerge as the Government considers whether to criminalise forced marriage or focus its efforts on protecting potential victims through the civil courts. A three-month consultation, which ends today, has exposed huge divisions among professionals, community workers, campaigners and victims about the risks and benefits of criminalising a practice that many believe to be an abuse of human rights.

Supporters of criminalisation point to Denmark where three members of the same family have been arrested for forcing a young female relative to marry – the first since forced marriage became a crime in 2008.

But critics say that criminalising an already hidden problem will drive it further underground, increase the risk of retaliation and result in more British victims being 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, training and prevention.

Solicitor Anne-Marie Hutchinson of Dawson Cornwell said: "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 know that the majority of these young people just want out of the situation, but 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."