In the upper echelons of the British Muslim community, everyone will tell you that forced marriage involving underage girls is accepted as being illegal. However, the minute anyone lifts this veil of respectability, all sorts of doubts start to emerge.
Officially, Muslims understand that forced marriage involving child brides is unlawful and even doubt whether it is endorsed by Sharia law. The reality is that some imams have been more than happy to carry out such wedding ceremonies as long as everything is done on the QT. The one redeeming feature of these religious leaders, who were recently the subject of an undercover sting by the Sunday Times, is that they take trouble to point out to “clients” that any such marriage is not recognised in British law and also that any consummation prior to the bride coming of age could prove “problematical.”
If all this sounds somewhat far-fetched, the newspaper was reporting actual encounters with imams in Peterborough and East London. Such revelations merely serve to underline the reasons why the government’s Forced Marriage Unit is having to remain especially vigilant. It estimates that, out of some 8,000 forced marriages which take place in the UK every year, over 1,000 relate to girls aged 15 or below.
The British experience seems to mirror that of developing countries like India where child marriage is also illegal. The problem seems to be not one of legislation but of enforcement.
In India, for instance, the Prohibition of Child Marriage Act which was passed in 2006 stipulates that any male adult aged over 18 who marries a child aged under 18 can be imprisoned for up to 2 years or fined a substantial sum. Unfortunately, this does not seem to resonate very strongly in many areas of the country.
In Hyderabad’s minority Muslim community, for example, there is a rampant trade in young girls based largely on mature visitors from the Gulf States who fly over, “bribe” the child’s parents, get married and then return home with their new virgin brides. One extreme example in 2007 saw a 60 year old Arab marry 3 young girls all within the space of 10 minutes.
The enforcement problem seems to stem from intimidation and threats from people like local politicians who seem to be alerted as soon as government officials are mobilised to thwart a suspected child marriage. Moreover, many such marriages cannot be challenged because the girls in question cannot produce a birth certificate or, on the occasions when they do, the chances are that the paperwork has been tampered with by someone somewhere along the line.
It seems a practice which has been around for centuries in large parts of the world isn’t going to roll over and disappear overnight. One charity looking to raise awareness of child brides and end this exploitation of young girls is Plan UK – take a look at some of their global campaigns to end forced marriage.