Forced marriage becomes a criminal offence today as a law banning the practice comes into effect.
Under the Anti-social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Act 2014 forcing someone to marry is now punishable by up to seven years in prison.
The legislation bans marrying someone who lacks the mental capacity to consent to the marriage, regardless of whether they are pressured to do it; taking someone overseas to force them to marry even if the marriage does not take place; use of violence, threats or coercion to cause someone else to marry, or behaviour that they should reasonably believe may cause the other person to marry without free and full consent.
The offences apply if either the perpetrator or victim is in England and Wales, habitually resident there or a UK national.
The breaching of forced marriage protection orders will now become a criminal offence resulting in up to five years in prison.
Anyone who has been forced to marry or threatened with it can apply for a protection order as can third parties such as the police, relatives and voluntary organisations. Local authorities can apply for the orders for vulnerable adults and children.
Rachel Clawson, who chairs a national network on forced marriage of people with learning disabilities run by Ann Craft Trust and Nottingham university, said said the new law would make it clear that forced marriage was an abuse of human rights. But it remained to be seen whether people forced into marriage would be reluctant to use the new law for fear of criminalising their families or whether it might make them feel more able to take action.
She added that the government says victims can choose whether to take civil action, through a forced marriage protection order, rather than criminal action, but it is not yet clear how people with learning disabilities would be supported to make this choice if they had the capacity to do so.
Preliminary findings from a survey she carried out of safeguarding boards show many have yet to include forced marriage in their policies. “Many safeguarding boards still have not got forced marriage – let alone forced marriage of people with learning disabilities – on their agenda,” she said.
Dr Ash Chand, the NSPCC’s strategy head for minority ethnic children said: “The change in the law to make forced marriage a crime in England and Wales is a huge step forward, and we hope this will deter those plotting against their own children.”
The number of calls to and online contacts with the NSPCC’s Childline helpline about forced marriage rose by two thirds in the last year to 141. A quarter of the children who contacted the helpline about the issue were aged between 12 and 15 and the majority of contacts – 108 – were from girls. 10 per cent of the cases involved violence and some victims said they felt suicidal.
Updated government guidance for social care, health, education and police professionals on dealing with forced marriage is here.
NSPCC has produced an animation to help children and young people understand the change in the law in conjunction with the government’s Forced Marriage Unit.