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LONDON (Reuters) - Forcing women, men and children into marriage was made a criminal act in Britain on Monday as the government escalated a campaign to promote "British values" of freedom and equality and combat accusations of being too lenient on extremism.
A new law made it a criminal offence to force people into marriage with a maximum jail term of seven years. It also made it a criminal act to force a British national into marriage outside the United Kingdom.
To date British courts have been able to issue civil orders to prevent people from being forced into marriage but this is the first time it has been criminalised.
The toughened stance comes as the government, which faces an election next year, confronts questions about identity in multi-cultural Britain where immigration, particularly from non-Christian societies, has shot up the political agenda to rival the economy among voters' concerns.
Only a handful of countries internationally have criminalised forced marriage, according to a British government consultation paper from 2012, including Germany, Austria, Belgium, Cyprus and Denmark, and Malta.
Home Secretary Theresa May said forced marriage was recognised in the United Kingdom as a form of violence against men and women, as domestic or child abuse, and as a serious abuse of human rights.
"Forced marriage is a tragedy for each and every victim, and its very nature means that many cases go unreported," May said in a statement, adding that Britain would hold its first summit on galvanising action against forced marriage later this year.
She defined a forced marriage as one where one or both spouses do not consent but are coerced into it through physical, psychological, financial, sexual or emotional pressure which could lead to being held unlawfully, assaulted and raped.
This contrasted to an arranged marriage where both parties consented to the union.
May said the government's Forced Marriage Unit, set up in 2005, last year gave advice or support related to possible forced marriages to more than 1,300 people, although it was likely the numbers did not reveal the scale of the problem.
Earlier research suggested there was between 5,000 to 8,000 cases of forced marriages in England annually.
Of the reports last year, 82 percent of victims were female and 15 percent under the age of 15, while the cases involved 74 different countries with 43 percent related to Pakistan, 11 percent to India and 10 percent to Bangladesh.
Campaigners, however, were divided on the new legislation, with some welcoming the move but others concerned it could deter people from coming forward as family members could risk jail.
Aneeta Prem, founder of the anti-slavery Freedom Charity, said criminalising forced marriage sent a clear message that this abuse of human rights would not be tolerated.
"In the most tragic cases, people forced into marriage become domestic slaves by day and sexual slaves by night," Prem said. "Everyone should have the freedom to choose."
But Aisha Gill of the University of Roehampton, who helped draft the law, said it would be challenging to implement.
"The challenges are in terms of giving evidence, particularly where the perpetrators may be those who are close to them, i.e. family members, and the coercion and pressure that they may be subjected to in terms of withdrawing [the complaint]," she told the BBC.
The new law has yet to be introduced in Scotland or Northern Ireland.
Reporting by Belinda Goldsmith