Forced marriages do not stand above the law

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The Independent Online

Every year, more than a thousand British girls in their teens find themselves duped into making a journey to the Indian subcontinent. Tricked by their own families into believing that they are travelling to visit a dying relative, to attend a family wedding or just to enjoy a foreign holiday, they find on arrival that they have in fact been sent there to marry a complete stranger. Resistance is met by coercion, verbal and physical, and the resulting marriage is, unsurprisingly, often unhappy. In addition to these unfortunate cases, there are many more young women who flee their homes and seek refuge in Britain to avoid the same thing happening to them.

Every year, more than a thousand British girls in their teens find themselves duped into making a journey to the Indian subcontinent. Tricked by their own families into believing that they are travelling to visit a dying relative, to attend a family wedding or just to enjoy a foreign holiday, they find on arrival that they have in fact been sent there to marry a complete stranger. Resistance is met by coercion, verbal and physical, and the resulting marriage is, unsurprisingly, often unhappy. In addition to these unfortunate cases, there are many more young women who flee their homes and seek refuge in Britain to avoid the same thing happening to them.

For some time, reports of forced marriages have made their way into the press, but little has been done by the police and social services because of an understandable fear of intruding into the cultural practices of an ethnic minority. And established community leaders, often with political connections to Labour, have done their best to deflect unwelcome publicity and investigation. For these reasons, the Home Office is to be praised for having set up a working party to inquire into the extent of the problem and to suggest remedies. This report is to be published today, but it emerged yesterday that a member of the inquiry, Hannana Siddiqui of the Southall Black Sisters, has resigned in protest that one of their recommendations has not been included in the final draft.

Ms Siddiqui is worried that the practice of using mediation to cajole frightened runaways out of refuge often leads the young women to return to a situation where they are subject to domestic violence and abuse. This is a fair worry, but the main point that the report must - and, it is anticipated, will - make is that forced marriage should not be treated as a special matter with procedures that apply only to certain ethnic communities. The violations of human rights involved - domestic abuse, violence and child abduction -are of general concern and application. There is no need for new laws and regulations to be drafted; what is necessary is that the existing laws against these abuses be vigorously enforced.

The very publication of such conclusions in an official report, drawn up in large part by respected members of the communities involved, should give police and social workers the backing they need to intervene without fear of being called racist. This is itself welcome evidence that Asian communities can now be judged by the same standards as everyone else in the ethnic patchwork that is modern Britain.

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