The British Government is to crack down on forced marriages, reported to be widely prevalent among families from the Indian subcontinent, by making them a criminal offence under a new law to be introduced in England and Wales.

Parents found guilty of forcing their children into a forced marriage could be jailed, Home Secretary Theresa May announced on Friday.

The move follows a consultation which took views from the public, victims of forced marriages, and campaign groups who believed that existing provisions were not sufficiently deterrent.

The Home Office clarified that the new law would distinguish between forced marriages, defined as those involving coercion, and arranged marriages where “both parties have consented to the union but can still refuse to marry if they choose to”.

Ms. May said forced marriages were an “appalling practice'' and by criminalising it the Government was sending “a strong message that it will not be tolerated''.

Prime Minister David Cameron described forced marriages as “little more than slavery''.

“To force anyone into marriage against their will is simply wrong and that is why we have taken decisive action to make it illegal,'' he said.

According to official figures, some 8,000 young women a year — mostly of Indian, Pakistani and Bangladeshi origin — are forced to marry against their consent. The Forced Marriage Unit at the Home Office is said to be inundated with appeals for help from victims of forced marriages.

“Between January and May 2012, the Forced Marriage Unit has provided advice and support in nearly 600 cases. Meanwhile the UK's embassies and high commissions work to rescue British victims forced into marriage overseas, and help them return to the UK,'' it said.

Campaigners welcomed the plans though some said that victims could be dissuaded from coming forward because they may not want their parents or close family members to end up going to jail.

Aneeta Prem, founder of the campaign group Freedom, said a forced marriage was “an indefensible abuse of human rights''.

“Criminalising forced marriage will send out a powerful message to people that this practice is unacceptable in England and will be dealt with severely,” she said.

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