Delegates at the first international forum on forced marriages agreed last week (June 20) to continue working together to address what some people see as a human-rights issue and others see as an important part of their culture.
The delegates from 13 western countries declared that forced marriages are a violation of human rights.
They agreed to establish a network to share information on forced marriages, and to try to develop better statistics on what they believe is a widespread problem. At the meeting, sponsored by the British Foreign Office, they also agreed on the importance of teaching young people their rights, training local officials and social service workers in many countries, and establishing more shelters for women and men who are forced into marriages.
Foreign Office official Fawzia Samad, who works with victims of forced marriages, said the forum helped some countries recognize the magnitude of the problem. But she pointed out there are no easy solutions.
"You cannot have a blanket approach to this issue, because if we do, it will not work," she said. "But, I think that what we all did was agree that is a human-rights issue, and we need to work it from a human-rights angle. And, you know, one of the other things we all agreed on was, we need to work with the community, with women's groups, with youth groups. And, as you highlight the issue, the more you highlight, the more aware people become that there are services available, so they turn to you."
Many of the forced marriages happen in immigrant communities in western countries. And some of the young people involved turn to the authorities for help.
The British Foreign Office reports that in the past three years, it has tried to help more than 600 British citizens who have been forced into marriages abroad. More than 100 of them have been brought back to Britain.
But officials say there are even more young people forced into marriages, in Britain and other countries, who are too scared to seek help.
According to the Foreign Office, 85 percent of the victims are young girls, mostly Muslims of South Asian background, but some are from East Asian, African and Middle Eastern families. The youngest was just 11 years old, but most are between the ages of 18 and 24. All were pressured by their parents and their families to marry against their will.
No religion endorses forced marriages, but arranged marriages are part of many cultures, with religious backing. Fawzia Samad of the Foreign Office explains that the problems come when young people are forced to accept arranged marriages they do not want.
"Forced marriage is when a person is basically forced into a marriage without the consent," she said. "An arranged marriage is where arrangements could be made by families, by parents. But, the two parties involved are willing and happy to consent to this, and that is basically the main difference, consent versus no consent."
At the Ashiana Project, a hot-line and safe house for victims of abuse and forced marriages, staff member Arvinder Lall says it is sometimes hard to tell where the young people's consent ends and the parents' coercion begins.
"I do not think anybody can define what is an arranged marriage and what is a forced marriage," she said. "Because if they grew up accepting that at one stage in their life, they are going to be married, then, that is an acceptance, not an agreement. They may not agree with it, but they accepted it. So, is that right? Have they really had a choice?"
Ms. Lall notes that some families see it as their duty to ensure that their daughters are married, and do not see anything wrong with forcing them to do so, if necessary.
"The problem is that within the many ethnic minority cultures, the girl is seen as a temporary member of the family," she said. "So, it's the parents' duty to get her married, and make sure she gets to her real family, which is her husband's family. Now to them, that's their duty. They do not think they're doing any harm. They think they're protecting their child."
But in the town of Watford, north of London, police constable Nobby Jutla points out that sometimes the parents' actions break the law. "I am a police officer, got to prevent crime as well as detect crime," he said.
Constable Jutla points out that some girls are beaten when they resist arranged marriages, and some are tricked into leaving Britain for their parents' home country, where they are then forced into a marriage.
He recalls one 15-year-old girl who fled her family home, after being beaten because she did not want to get married. He placed her in a safe house in a secret location. "I relocated her in a different town, got her schooling to finish off her exams, and she is still there now, and she has not seen her parents since then. She misses her family," he said. "But the other thing is you got to bear in mind [is that the] family have committed criminal offenses by assaulting her, beating her."
According to Constable Jutla, most girls he relocates feel tremendous guilt, blaming themselves for bringing shame on their families. But he adds these girls also live in fear of being discovered and even being killed.
"They are always looking over the shoulder because, again, the fear factor of being located, found and returned to wherever - it may be back to the family home, or forced onto a plane and taken to somewhere that they view as a lawless state, and there is no one there to protect them," he explained.
Constable Jutla works with young women mainly of Bengali and Pakistani background. He notes that that, although most of the victims are Muslims, forced marriages should not be seen as a religious issue.
"It is not just religion. It is a culture. You are talking about family honor. You are talking about preventing sexual freedom, a number of reasons," he said. "It is not just about somebody being a follower of Islam and interpreting the Koran or their culture that we must do this, we must do that with our daughters. It is a lot wider than that."
Some people who work with victims of forced marriages believe new legislation is needed in Britain and other countries to specifically outlaw the practice. But others, including Constable Jutla, say current laws are sufficient. They also point out that victims are almost never willing to press charges against their families, and they say new laws would not change that.
The international forum in London concluded that new laws would probably not have much impact. Instead, the delegates recommended that each country develop an 'action plan' appropriate to the local situation, and work to ensure that young people know their rights.