LONDON // The British government announced Friday that forcing a person into marriage is to be made a criminal offence.
Described by Prime Minister David Cameron as slavery, forced marriages are estimated to involve about 8,000 people living in Britain each year, primarily girls of Pakistani origin but also significant numbers from Bangladeshi, Indian, Afghan and Turkish communities.
Outlining proposals for the new law, which will be implemented in England and Wales by 2014, Theresa May, the home secretary, said: "Forced marriage is an appalling practice and by criminalising it we are sending a strong message that it will not be tolerated."
Mr Cameron said in a statement that extra funding would be made available over the next three years for training to help schools and other agencies spot early signs of a forced marriage.
"Forced marriage is abhorrent and little more than slavery," said Mr Cameron. "To force anyone into marriage against their will is simply wrong and that is why we have taken decisive action to make it illegal."
Until now, police have used existing laws to prosecute forced-marriage cases and some campaigners fear that, by making it a specific criminal offence, the practice could be driven even further underground.
Andrew Flanagan, the chief executive of the charity the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (NSPCC), welcomed the law but said it "may risk making this abuse harder to uncover".
Figures released yesterday by the government's Forced Marriage Unit showed that, in the first five months of this year, it had handled 594 cases, 87 per cent involving female victims, almost half of whom were aged under 18. In one case, a five-year-old girl was involved. But it is believed that these figures do not show the full extent of the problem.
Aneeta Prem, the founder of the charity Freedom, which campaigns against forced marriage and dishonour violence, welcomed the government's plans.
"Criminalising forced marriage will send out a powerful message to people that this practice is unacceptable in England and will be dealt with severely," she said.
Diana Nammi, the director of the Iranian and Kurdish Women's Rights Organisation, added: "Women and girls from minority communities have suffered these violations for too long. The new law will empower them with the knowledge that what is happening to them is wrong and can be stopped."
There are no details yet on what the maximum prison term will be under the new law.