London: A new British law that makes it a criminal offence to force someone into marriage today came into effect.
Under the Anti-Social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Act 2014, anyone found guilty of forcing a person into marriage faces a maximum jail sentence of seven years in England and Wales.
The law also makes it possible to prosecute perpetrators from other countries where a British national is being forced to wed.
"Forced marriage is a tragedy for each and every victim, and its very nature means that many cases go unreported. I am proud to say that the UK is already a world leader in the fight to stamp out this harmful practice with the government`s Forced Marriage Unit (FMU) working hard to tackle this terrible practice in the UK and overseas," UK Home Secretary Theresa May said.
The Home Office revealed that the FMU gave advice or support in a possible forced marriage to more than 1,300 people in 2013.
The problem largely affects Britain`s immigrant communities with origins in South Asia.
The cases involved 74 different countries in all with 43 per cent relating to Pakistan, 11 per cent to India and 10 per cent to Bangladesh.
A forced marriage has been defined as where one or both spouses do not consent and are coerced into it through physical, psychological, financial, sexual or emotional pressure.
"In the most tragic cases, people forced into marriage become domestic slaves by day and sexual slaves by night. Today`s announcement sends out a powerful message that this indefensible abuse of human rights will not be tolerated," said Freedom charity founder Aneeta Prem, who campaigns on the issue.
Since 2008, courts have been able to issue civil orders to prevent victims being forced into marriage.
However, the new law for the first time makes forced marriage a criminal offence.
Anne-Marie Hutchinson, a solicitor who specialises in representing people facing forced marriage, warned, "There is a real danger that victims of forced marriage will be deterred from coming forward to seek protection from forced marriage if they fear that members of their close family will be jailed.
"It is imperative now that forced marriage has been criminalised, that victims receive full and proper support from the authorities throughout the process."