LONDON – Britain investigated 400 cases of forced marriages last year and is looking into whether 30 girls who have vanished from school registers may have been taken out of schools and forced to marry, officials said Tuesday.
The highest incidence of reported forced marriages is in Muslim communities, figures show. Britain is home to more than 1.8 million Muslims, the majority of whom are of Pakistani origin.
"Forced marriage has nothing to do with religion," said Nazia Khanum, who worked on a report funded by the Home Office that detailed numbers of reported cases. "It is a part of a patriarchal system where parents believe they know what is best."
A new act is to be introduced this year that will allow judges more power to remove victims of abuses connected with forced marriage from households and issue protection orders. Family members who break the protection orders could be arrested.
Government officials are to also investigate requests for sponsorships on visas. If forced marriages occur overseas, government officials can work to return British nationals home and arrange for accommodation and legal help.
It is not against British law to force someone into marriage. But the practice often involves criminal offenses including abuse, assault, rape, kidnapping and murder.
"I don't think my parents would have taken me to Pakistan and forced me to marry my first cousin if it was a criminal offense in Britain, 28-year-old Shazia Qayum, who was taken out of her school at 15, told The Associated Press.
The Forced Marriage Unit, comprised of six officers from the Foreign Office and Home Office, was formed as a result of the increase in reported cases. Last year it dealt with 400 cases in Britain — 168 of those occurred abroad and required consular assistance, according to the Foreign Office. The majority of the cases abroad were in Pakistan, Bangladesh and India.
The Commons Home Affairs Select Committee has also been investigating areas in Britain, such as Bradford, where the city councils lost track of 205 school children last year. Of that number, 33 — most of them girls — remain unaccounted for.
"It is a serious concern when any child — any single child — becomes unaccounted for," said Children's Minister Kevin Brennan.
Ann Cryer, member of Parliament for Keighley in Yorkshire, has been speaking out against forced marriages for nine years. She said she is particularly concerned that the issue is not being addressed in schools and in Muslim areas.
"There's a problem in our northern towns and cities where all three parties are worried about losing the Muslim vote so people have avoided talking about it," Cryer told AP.
Qayum said when her family pulled her out of school at 15 in Birmingham, no authorities asked about her disappearance.
A year later she found herself being forced on a family trip to Pakistan where she was made to marry her first cousin, whom she divorced when she returned to the United Kingdom.
Qayum said she told immigration officials she had been forced into marriage, yet her Pakistani husband was still given a visa to come to Britain.
She is now divorced and has no contact with her family.
"We are seeing an increase of cases — perhaps because the issue is getting more attention," said a British government official who spoke on condition of anonymity because she was not authorized to speak to reporters.
Qayum said her parents used religion as a tool to pressure her into the marriage.
"They made me feel like it was my duty," she said.
The Ramadhan Foundation, a Muslim think tank, urged the community to condemn forced marriage.
"The ethnic minority community must speak up and condemn these sham marriages and not allow the silence to blind the whole community," said Mohammed Shafiq, the foundation's director.
In Britain in the last decade, more than 25 women have been killed in so-called honor killings of women who were involved with men their families did not approve. One hundred homicides are being investigated for links to the practice.
One of the most gruesome cases involved 20-year-old Banaz Mahmod, who was strangled, stuffed in a suitcase and buried in a back garden in 2006 on orders from her father for becoming involved with an unapproved man.
Her father was given a life sentence last year for ordering her killing.