Should governments criminalize forced marriage?

A British Op-Ed says the failure to ban the practice is a betrayal of Asian women.

Published June 16, 2006 6:51PM (EDT)

"The government has betrayed Asian women," writes Asians in Media editor Sunny Hundal in the U.K.'s Guardian today. Hundal's Op-Ed comes in response to the Home Office's recent decision not to ban forced marriage in Britain, despite the fact that, Hundal says, "it would be no exaggeration to say that thousands of young British Asian women are forced into marriage every year." Currently, parents and guardians can be prosecuted for more general offenses like kidnapping, false imprisonment or rape, but not specifically for forcing someone into marriage.

Around 300 complaints are reported to the country's Forced Marriages Unit annually, cases that, Hundal says, "represent only a tip of the iceberg." (A related BBC story, which Hundal links to, notes that "in most cases young women are pressured into marrying, but at least 15% [of reported cases] involve coercion of men.")

It's hard to assess the scope of the problem based on Hundal's piece, though, since most of his evidence is anecdotal. He writes, "I have seen well educated and well adjusted friends slowly become nervous wrecks as their parents pile on the pressure," and "A Sikh friend even blogs to keep her sanity," but doesn't cite statistics. And he makes some pretty reckless assumptions, going from "It should come as no surprise that British Asian women are three times as likely to commit suicide than normal" to "If only 300 cases are reported to the authorities, and most of them from the girls themselves, it becomes fairly obvious they want legal protection after exhausting all other avenues short of suicide."

Sweeping generalizations aside, Hundal's basic assertion that even one forced marriage is a forced marriage too many is sound. No one, male or female, Asian or otherwise, should be forced into marriage. But opponents of the legislation aren't arguing for forced marriage; instead, they seem to be arguing that current laws offer sufficient protection, and that ongoing community education is more constructive than criminalizing the practice. Hundal counters that a more effective deterrent would be lawmakers making an example of offending families: "The argument that existing legislation is enough misses the point that criminalizing forced marriages would very much be a symbolic move. We need a few high-profile cases of Asian parents being put in prison to make the practice a social stigma." Fighting words indeed.

I wonder, though, how the government would go about prosecuting those high-profile cases. If they could demonstrate evidence of abuse -- kidnapping, imprisonment, rape or physical harm -- those offenses are already criminal. Without evidence of this kind of physical force, I wonder how evidence of forcible marriage would be demonstrated. Still, the sticky issue of traditional cultural values clashing with the Western legal system is likely to grow more pressing in the coming years, and it's vital that governments and citizens consider how best to preserve women's autonomy. But does failing to criminalize forced marriage constitute a betrayal of the country's women?

By Page Rockwell

Page Rockwell is Salon's editorial project manager.

MORE FROM Page Rockwell

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Broadsheet Love And Sex