LONDON – A British law has gone into effect that allows courts to prevent someone from being forced into marriage — a move that comes as governments across Europe confront immigrant practices that sometimes clash with more liberal values.
In the first nine months of 2008, the Forced Marriage Unit — part of Britain's Foreign Office — handled more than 1,300 cases in which there were concerns someone was about to be forced into marriage, or already had been.
Nearly 85 percent of the cases had female victims, and the majority involved families of Pakistani, Indian, and Bangladeshi descent, the unit said. About half involved minors.
The Forced Marriage Act, which took effect Tuesday, gives British courts the power to issue protection orders that can stop intimidation or violence, prevent someone from having to go abroad, and compel someone to reveal the whereabouts of a person believed to be at risk.
The act allows the victim, a friend, or an agency working with the person at risk — like the police, social services or organizers of a women's refuge — to apply for a protection order. Anyone who violates such an order can be jailed for two years.
It is not a crime in Britain to force someone into marriage. But the practice often includes offenses such as abuse, assault, rape and kidnapping.
Women who had been forced into marriage — or who had escaped a forced marriage — were consulted on the act before it became law, said Shaminder Ubhi, the director of London's Ashiana Project.
"You want to be able to say to the community that this won't be tolerated, that if you are a perpetrator, you will be held accountable," Ubhi said.
The effort to curb forced marriage is part of a wider debate across Europe over the proper balance between accepting diversity and demanding that immigrants accept the values of their new country. France, with a secular tradition, set of a furious debate in 2004 by banning Muslim headscarves and other religious symbols from schools.
In Britain in 2007, a Muslim teaching assistant who refused to remove her veil, which revealed only her eyes, was fired by the primary school she worked for. This year in France, a court invalidated a Muslim man's marriage because he discovered his wife was not a virgin. A higher court reinstated the marriage, however — to the consternation of both husband and wife.
Forced marriage differs from arranged marriage in that either the bride, groom, or both do not consent. In arranged marriages, families suggest suitable candidates but both parties must agree to the wedding.
In the United States, there is no law targeting forced marriage, said Sandra Park, a lawyer with the American Civil Liberties Union. But she said it could be prosecuted under other statues, such as marital rape.
Under Islamic law, consent is required for marriage, but forced unions do occur, especially in the more conservative and traditional countries of the Middle East.
Diana Nammi, the founder of the International Campaign Against Honor Killings, said she would prefer to see forced marriage criminalized but the new law will help.
"It will support that woman, give her power, give her the right to choose, and give her the resources to live safely," she said.