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Scotland confronts forced marriage

The dark practice of forced marriage, a 21st century anachronism that is prevalent in Britain among mainly Pakistanis and Bangladeshis, has just been thrown its stiffest challenge yet.

world Updated: Dec 23, 2011 00:42 IST
Dipankar De Sarkar

The dark practice of forced marriage, a 21st century anachronism that is prevalent in Britain among mainly Pakistanis and Bangladeshis, has just been thrown its stiffest challenge yet. The provincial government of Scotland has enacted what must rank among the strongest anti-forced marriage laws in the world.

The custom — a violation of human rights — also exists among Sikh immigrants from India and Muslims from Afghanistan, Turkey and the Middle East. It is distinct from arranged marriage, and is defined as a marriage that takes place without the consent of either the bride or the groom, or both.

It is associated with child marriage, kidnappings, mental abuse, physical violence, disappearances and even murder in Britain — all over a misplaced notion of izzat, or honour. Sixty percent of the cases handled by British diplomats in Pakistan are linked to three Kashmiri towns — Bhimber, Kotli and Mirpur.

Now, Scotland has become the first region in Britain to criminalise forced marriage, which will be punishable by two years in jail, a fine or both. The new law gives Scottish courts the power to offer increased protection to both men and women — and not only victims but also those who are under threat.

MPs are alarmed that parents are duping naïve teenagers with specious excuses — typically, they would be told their grandmother or grandfather is ill abroad. Once in Pakistan, Bangladesh or Punjab, their passports would be taken away and they would be told to marry someone. If in Pakistan, the life partner will often be a first cousin, which can then lead to a whole range of medical problems for the offspring.

There are some campaigners who think that by criminalizing forced marriage, you may end up driving it underground. But it’s a response to a massive problem. Last year, the British government dealt with 400 cases, but hundreds more go unreported for fear of serious repercussions. “This law will send a powerful statement that forced marriage will not be tolerated and culture and religion cannot be used to excuse abuse,” said a spokeswoman for Roshni, a Scottish NGO.