After years of kowtowing to multicultural sensitivities, Britain is now debating whether or not to make the act of forcing someone into a marriage a specific criminal offense.
Supporters of the anti-forced marriage legislation, which may be unveiled by the British government within the next few weeks, say it would be an important first step in combating a cycle of Islamic honor-related kidnappings, sexual assaults, beatings and murder that is spiralling out of control in Britain.
Recent studies show that honor-based violence (which differs from more common forms of domestic violence because it can also be carried out by a victim's children, siblings, in-laws and extended family) is far more prevalent in Britain than originally thought.
According to the London-based Association of Chief Police Officers, up to 17,000 women in Britain are victims of honor-based violence -- forced marriages, honor killings, kidnappings, sexual assaults, beatings, female genital mutilation and other forms of abuse -- every year. This figure is 35 times higher than official figures suggest and British detectives say it is "merely the tip of the iceberg" of this phenomenon.
Research commissioned by Britain's Department of Education shows that an estimated 8,000 young women in Britain are the victims of forced marriages each year. Some women's groups say the actual number is far higher because many victims are afraid to come forward.
In 2010, 1,735 victims of forced marriages sought help from the Forced Marriage Unit, a special agency established by the British government. Some of those cases involved girls as young as 13, and there were 70 instances involving women with learning or physical disabilities. Around 85 percent of the cases involved females; 15 percent involved boys or men.
Another study titled "A Statistical Study to Estimate the Prevalence of Female Genital Mutilation in England and Wales" says that more than 65,000 women in Britain have undergone female genital mutilation, and at least 15,000 girls under the age of 15 are at high risk of the procedure. The report, which was funded by Britain's Department of Health, says girls and adult women often are forced to undergo female genital mutilation as a condition of marriage. Although the practice is prohibited in the United Kingdom under the Female Genital Mutilation Act of 2003, to date not a single person has been prosecuted for the offense.
At least a dozen women are believed to victims of honor killings in Britain every year, but the exact number is not known -- partly because there is no clear definition of what constitutes an honor-killing -- and many believe the true figure could be higher. Often honor-killings cannot be resolved due to the unwillingness of family, relatives and communities to testify. For example, one in ten young British Asians believes honor-killings can be justified, according to a BBC poll.
The research literature shows that honor-based violence in Britain is most prevalent among Muslim immigrants from South Asia, the Middle East and North and West Africa. According to the Domestic Violence Intervention Project in West London, for example, up to 60 percent of Arab families suffer from honor-related violence. According to the Lantern Project in Birmingham, honor-based violence is equally common wealthy families as among unemployed or unskilled immigrants.
Honor-related violence in Britain is not limited to older, first-generation immigrants. According to a 174-page report titled "Crimes of the Community: Honor-Based Violence in the UK," honor-based violence is "not a one-time problem of first-generation immigrants bringing practices from 'back home' to the UK. Instead honor violence is now, to all intents and purposes, an indigenous and self-perpetuating phenomenon which is carried out by third and fourth generation immigrants who have been raised and educated in the UK."
British Prime Minister David Cameron has promised to "outlaw the practice of forced marriage." In a campaign speech in Bradford in February 2008, Cameron said thousands of young Britons were being forced to marry someone against their will every year, with some cases involving assaults and kidnaps. "It seems utterly bizarre, and frankly unacceptable, that this goes on in Britain but it does," Cameron said.
He also said existing legislation to tackle forced marriages needs to be strengthened to make the practice a specific criminal offense: "At the moment, the Forced Marriages Act, which we supported, only makes it possible to pursue civil prosecutions. The argument runs that it is unlikely that victims will come forward if it means pressing criminal charges against their parents. But we shouldn't close this door and if the current legislation doesn't work in ending forced marriages, the Conservative Party would consider making them a criminal offence."
In April 2011, Cameron in a major speech on immigration, stated: "There are forced marriages taking place in our country, and overseas, as a means of gaining entry to the UK. This is the practice where some young British girls are bullied and threatened into marrying someone they don't want to. I've got no time for those who say this is a culturally relative issue -- frankly it is wrong, full stop, and we've got to stamp it out."
In February, Cameron declared Britain's long-standing policy of multiculturalism to be a failure. "Under the doctrine of state multiculturalism, we have encouraged different cultures to live separate lives, apart from each other and apart from the mainstream. We have even tolerated these segregated communities behaving in ways that run completely counter to our values." Cameron cited "the horror of forced marriage" as one of the specific negative consequences of multiculturalism.
In May, the Home Affairs Select Committee, a cross-party group of British MPs, published a new report recommending that forced marriage be turned into a criminal offense to send a stronger message that it will not be tolerated. The committee, which took soundings from a variety of different groups working to counter forced marriage, said it was "not at all clear" that current legislation was protecting those at risk.
"We believe that it would send out a very clear and positive message to communities within the UK and internationally if it becomes a criminal act to force -- or to participate in forcing -- an individual to enter into marriage against their will. The lack of a criminal sanction also sends a message, and currently that is a weaker message than we believe is needed. We urge the Government to take an early opportunity to legislate on this matter," the committee said.
In June, a new bill was introduced in the House of Lords that would force Islamic courts to acknowledge the primacy of English law. The Arbitration and Mediation Services (Equality) Bill would make it an offense punishable by five years in jail for anyone to falsely claim or imply that Sharia courts or councils have legal jurisdiction over family or criminal law.
The bill, proposed by Lady Caroline Cox-Johnson, and backed by women's rights groups, was drawn up because of "deep concerns" that Muslim women are suffering discrimination within closed Sharia law councils. Cox said she had found "considerable evidence" of women, some of whom are brought to Britain speaking little English and kept ignorant of their legal rights, suffering domestic violence or unequal access to divorce, due to discriminatory decisions made. "We cannot continue to condone this situation. Many women say: 'We came to this country to escape these practices only to find the situation is worse here.'"
Britain is not the only European country coming to grips with the problem of forced marriage. Belgium outlawed the practice in 2007, and those convicted of forcing someone into marriage by violence or coercion face a prison sentence of up to two years and a fine of up to €2,500 ($3,500). Norway amended its Penal Code in 2003. It is now a crime punishable by up to six years in prison to force a person into marriage; it is also a punishable offense to enter into marriage with a person under the age of 16.
Germany became the latest European country to outlaw forced marriages. In March 2011 the German government made the practice a crime punishable by up to five years in prison. French law forbids forced marriages and allows prosecution of anyone who mutilates the genitals of a girl with French citizenship or resident status, even if the operation is conducted in another country. But the practices continue to thrive in secret.