A two-day international conference to discuss the sensitive problem of so-called forced marriages opened in London yesterday, presenting such arranged relationships as a human rights issue and aiming at giving guidance and practical help to victims.
The British government, which has set up a special Forced Marriage Unit (FMU), is to share its experience with other participants at the conference, organised by the Foreign Office in partnership with the European Commission's Daphne Fund.
The conference will be told about the guidance given to social workers, health professionals, police and teachers by the FMU to help them respond to complaints of forced marriage - and to spot cases where women might be afraid to seek help from the authorities. It will also hear the personal testimony of victims who have fled marital relationships entered against their will.
FMU head Peter Abbott revealed that his unit has dealt with several cases linked to predominantly Catholic countries such as Italy, Ireland and France, since its establishment in 2005. Though popular opinion regarded forced marriage as a problem mainly in Muslim communities, Abbott said that cases were seen in many cultures where family and village ties exert a strong influence.
While 65percent of about 300 cases which the FMU deals with each year involve Pakistan, and 25percent Bangladesh, others were linked to countries such as Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Iraq. A handful of European countries, including Italy, Ireland and France, were also affected, said Abbott.
According to FMU figures, about 15percent of the cases involve men and 33percent young people aged under 18, many of whom have been promised for marriage at ages as low as eight.
"The overwhelming common denominator is those cultures and societies where the family is incredibly strong, where family and the village is the centre of life and really plays a large part," Abbott said.
Foreign Office Minister Meg Munn said in her opening statement: "These cases happen across the world. It's not a religious issue, it's not a cultural issue. This is a human rights issue. It happens in all sorts of places, not because of people's religion."
FMU guidance states that forced marriage is against the teachings of all major religions, and the unit is planning to produce a pamphlet by a Muslim scholar explaining the position of Islam on the issue.
British nationals who have been sent abroad for a forced marriage frequently go to British diplomatic representatives for help, and in many cases, are offered shelter in a refuge, replacement passports, transport back to Britain and support at home if their families disown them, Abbott said.
Worldwide, about 200 people are assisted, rescued and repatriated each year, often with the assistance of authorities in the country involved.
Britain has developed good relations with the Pakistani authorities - particularly in the rural Mirpur district, with which the majority of cases are linked.
The exact extent of the problem inside Britain remains unknown, though the FMU says it receives 5000 contacts a year. - Sapa