Marriage may be joining the list of criminal offences, a list that includes acts such as rape, manslaughter and infanticide. But what kind of marriage classifies as a criminal offense? One in which a person is persuaded or threatened, against his or her will, to lock lives with a stranger. For many, the ring is a coveted symbol of love, but for some, it becomes a symbol of entrapment; an incessant reminder of events that elicited the forced “I do”.
Worldwide, an estimated 10 million girls under the age of 18 are pressured into early or forced marriages every year. While many associate the majority of these cases with poorer, developing countries, even in an ostensibly developed country such as the U.K., this number stands at around 8,000. Similarly, in the United States, forced marriage is a pressing problem, with as many as 3,000 cases, but unlike in the U.K., it is veiled from the eyes of the public. The United Kingdom’s approach may be worth adopting—the British have been taking action on what they believe should be viewed as an explicit criminal offense. Last year, however, England took a firm stance on forced marriages. British Prime Minister David Cameron and Home Secretary Theresa May began taking steps towards making forced marriage a criminal offence, with the new law expected to be introduced some time this year, during the 2013-14 parliamentary session. “I want to send a clear and strong message” Cameron stated. “Forced marriage is wrong, is illegal, and will not be tolerated.”
Before examining the necessary punitive action to bring forced marriage to end, it is important to make the distinction between arranged marriages and forced marriages. An arranged marriage does not violate any rights; it takes place with the consent of the individuals involved, and those who enter it have the option of withdrawing from the match at any time. A forced marriage, on the other hand, is one in which two people wed under psychological and/or physical pressure. It is this kind of marriage, in which the individual is under extreme duress, that Britain is rightfully attempting to prohibit.
Yet there are numerous concerns that surround criminalization of forced marriages. For instance, since forced marriages primarily occur within minority groups, a ban may be viewed as a cultural attack, not dissimilar to France’s ban on burqas. Yet the British, unlike the French, are placing a ban on a matter that inherently violates the right to free will. Forced marriage violates a universal right; Article 16 of The Universal Declaration of Human Rights explains that “marriage shall be entered into only with the free and full consent of the intending spouses."
Statistically, many forced marriages occur in the Muslim community. Yet the argument regarding the obstruction of religious practice also falls short, as no religion, and especially not Islam, advocates the union of two people against their will. In fact, the Qu’ran states, “O you who have believed, it is not lawful for you to inherit women by compulsion.”
However, apart from religious and cultural concerns, there exists an even more worrying issue: Opponents claim that criminalizing forced marriages would drive the issue further underground, as victims would be deterred from prosecuting their own parents. In order to avoid this consequence, Cameron has considered whether the ban would be more detrimental than effective. In order to prevent the silencing of victims, the existing civil solution is also expected to remain in place together with the new ban. Thus, victims who are unwilling to prosecute their parents may choose a civil protection route. Even if they choose to go the other way, victims will not be asked to support a prosecution against their will.
Apart from violating a right to liberty, a forced marriage almost always leads to another issue: non-consensual sexual activity. Some consider this another reason to not make forced marriage a criminal offense; the existing laws, which incriminate rape, kidnapping, false imprisonment, and harassment already cover the criminal acts that a forced marriage creates. However the legislature, concretely identifying the action as a criminal offense, could force parents to think twice before pressuring their sons and daughters into marrying against their will. It would certainly crystalize the issue as something that is not to be tolerated; it treats it as an unpardonable act in and of itself, separate from the issues it could generate.
Therefore, Cameron’s decision to illegalize forced marriages is a step other countries should consider following. Nazir Afzal, chief crown prosecutor for the northwest of the United Kingdom, believes the UK is around 10 years ahead of America (which not only has no Forced Marriage Units or hotlines, but also no federal law against the act) on the issue of forced marriage. While nine U.S. states and territories have legislature against forced marriage, there have been no prosecutions under it. Therefore, the outcome of the UK’s new legislation may prove useful in considering the management of the issue on American soil. If the United Kingdom’s legislation is successful, it could help transform the handcuff back into a ring. It could help minimize rape in favor of consensual sex. It could convert empty vows into sincere declarations. Ultimately, it is a step that could give back a voice to the young who utter the forced “I do.”
Casimira S. Karunaratne ’15, a Crimson editorial writer, is an English concentrator in Lowell House.