LONDON — England and Wales made it a criminal offense as of Monday to force anyone into marriage, an effort to persuade victims to come forward and to emphasize secular legal values.
The practice of forced marriage is more common among South Asians here, government officials said. Nearly two-thirds of the cases the government’s Forced Marriage Unit deals with stem from these groups, where the common cultural practice of arranged marriage can in its extreme become forced marriage, which the government considers a form of violence.
The law, which carries a maximum prison sentence of seven years, also makes it a crime to force a British citizen into marriage abroad. Some families force their children to fly to other countries, like Pakistan, India or Bangladesh, for an arranged marriage there.
Last year, the Forced Marriage Unit dealt with 1,302 cases, with 82 percent of the victims female, 40 percent under age 18 and 15 percent 15 or younger.
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The government said 43 percent of the cases involved Pakistan, 11 percent India and 10 percent Bangladesh, though 74 countries were involved.
But other estimates from social workers and campaigners suggest there are 5,000 to 8,000 cases of forced marriage annually in Britain.
The law does not yet apply to Scotland, which has passed similar legislation, or to Northern Ireland, which is likely to pass its own measure.
The law is viewed as part of the Conservative-led government’s effort to promote “British values” like gender equality and freedom of choice.
The government has been accused by some Conservative legislators and by the populist U.K. Independence Party of not doing enough to combat religious extremism, which here tends to mean radical Islam, or cultural practices like genital cutting.
Recently, the government was embroiled in a heated dispute about some schools in Birmingham, a city with a large Muslim population, and whether they had become too sectarian, leading to charges of government laxity on the one hand and Islamophobia on the other.
Home Secretary Theresa May said Monday that later this year Britain would hold a first conference designed to combat forced marriage, much as the Foreign Office sponsored an international gathering last week headlined by actress Angelina Jolie to combat rape as a weapon of war.
The law defines a forced marriage as one in which one or both spouses are coerced into marrying by “physical, psychological, financial, sexual or emotional pressure.” An arranged marriage is presumed to be one where both parties consent.
One woman told the BBC she was duped into traveling to Pakistan at 17 to marry her first cousin on the pretext of a family vacation. She later escaped what she called an “absolutely horrendous” marriage, in which she was “treated like a slave” by the family of her husband.
Her own family has disowned her. “Their view of it all was that they felt I was going to become far too westernized and bring shame onto the family,” she said.
British courts can issue civil orders to prevent forced marriage, but the new law criminalizes such marriages. Failing to obey such an order can now result in a prison sentence of up to five years.
The National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children said children as young as 12 had contacted the group about forced marriage, and that the number of calls in general had risen considerably in the past year.