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A new law which explicitly categorises forced marriage as a crime represents a crucial milestone in efforts to protect women’s human rights

The debate around criminalising forced marriage was waging amongst feminist scholars and activists long before David Cameron announced his government intended to make the act of a forcing a person to marry a crime. In 2005-2006, the (then) Labour government’s public consultation on forced marriage gave rise to an often heated and polarising discussion, which centred largely on notions of deterrence. Those in favour of criminalisation argued that a new law would unequivocally convey to relevant parties that forced marriage is wrong and so heinous as to warrant criminal prosecution, while those against held that it would prevent victims from coming forward for fear of getting their families into trouble.

Back then, proposals for criminalisation were defeated largely on the grounds that a new offence would lead to ‘racial segregation’ and create a ‘minority law’. These claims, as I have suggested elsewhere, point to the privileging of multicultural ideals over the protection of women’s rights that often occurs in Western states. The expected passage this month, however, of the Anti-Social Behaviour Crime and Policing Bill – which includes a section criminalising forced marriage – means that feminist debate on this topic is more intense than ever. Echoing earlier debates, a number of prominent women’s organisations, activists and feminist theorists are opposing the legislation, claiming that it will deter victims from seeking help and legal redress.

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