Denmark is one of a growing number of countries that have passed laws criminalizing forced marriage.  But, in spite of a 2008 amendment designed to strengthen Denmark’s forced marriage legislation by increasing the punishment from two to four years of prison, nobody has ever been convicted under the Danish law.  According to PhD student Sabba Mirza, quoted in The Copenhagen Post:

All the organisations that are working in the field say that there is an increase in the number of [forced] marriages. So when there are no cases for the courts then it could indicate that the rules aren’t good enough.

Advocates have identified two key problems thwarting authorities’ efforts to intervene in forced marriage cases, shortcomings that could explain why the law isn’t having its intended effect.  First, Denmark’s forced marriage law applies only to marriages that are formally recognized by the Danish government, whereas many forced marriages are conducted privately and never officially registered.

A second major flaw in the Danish law is that it focuses on preventing non-consensual marriages induced by physical force, whereas most forced marriages are the result of acute psychological coercion.  “[T]he law should be widened so that it also includes psychological pressure,” says Mirza, “which in many cases can be far more oppressive than real violence.”  Peter Skaarup of the Danish People’s Party (Dansk Folkeparti) agrees: “I think the situation would definitely change if we broadened the criteria for how we define ‘force’,” Skaarup told Politiken, “It may help create a mentality change in the parallel societies where this happens and we know through studies that social control is often forced through social and psychological pressure and not just violence.”

Frontline responders in other countries that, like Denmark, have criminalized forced marriage complain that criminal consequences have actually deterred victims from reporting their parents and loved ones to police.  A spokesperson for Hemat Gryffe Women’s Aid, a Glasgow safe house for forced marriage victims, told The Scotsman:

We supported 14 women last year, most of whom are quite young, aged 16 to 21.  They suddenly find papers saying they’re going to another country, or the wedding starts getting discussed among the family.  However, you cannot criminalise the family because then the women will not come forward.  They won’t want their parents or aunts or uncles put in jail. The purpose of the bill must be to impose civil order, to prevent the marriage going ahead.

And, a recent study by Dr Aisha Gill at Roehampton University concluded, “For many victims it is crucial that seeking help does not prevent future reconciliation with their families, especially their parents.  In this regard, criminalisation may actively discourage many victims and potential victims from speaking out about the abuse/coercion they are facing.”  Lord Lester, who introduced the UK’s civil Forced Marriage bill into Parliament, has consistently advocated for a strictly civil approach.  The BBC Ethics Guide quotes him as saying that the criminal process “has not proved to be an effective way of tackling a major social problem.”  However, Prime Minister David Cameron and some Members of Parliament continue to push for criminalization, arguing that criminalization would take the burden off of the victim and place it on the state.

Even victims are divided on the civil-versus-criminal debate.  Forced-marriage survivor Jasvinder Sanghera, who supports criminalization, told The Observer that victims will only report violations if they are made to understand that they bear no blame.  “Victims are saying we need the full protection of the law,” says Sanghera, “We’re trying to create a cultural responsibility here. It’s our duty to bring this above ground … This is an offence that is not to be tolerated, an offence that can – and does – end in violence, rape and murder.”  Conversely, forced-marriage survivor, Sameem Ali, adamantly opposes criminalization, saying “No young person wants to turn their parents in and get them into trouble.”

GJI forced marriage initiative director Julia Alanen cautions that “Criminalizing forced marriage could inspire contempt and distrust among the very victims, families, and communities whose cooperation is most critical to ending this harmful practice.  The United States and other countries that are only just beginning to develop a legislative response to forced marriage will do well to consider lessons learned in Denmark and other sovereign states with well-established forced-marriage protection regimes.”

READ MORE: PM criticized for views on tackling forced marriage, The Copenhagen Post (October 4, 2012); Forced marriages continue despite tightened legislation, (August 2, 2012).