Ayesha Khan always felt trapped living in a traditional Asia-Muslim household in Scotland. She wanted freedom, so at 18 she ran away from home. It wasn’t long before her family found her and brought her back using death threats and blackmail.

A few months later, during a trip to Pakistan, Ayesha’s family forced her to marry a man distantly related to her father.

“The reason I got married was because it was punishment for running away from home,” she says in an interview from England. “I felt I had no option but to agree, just so that I could eventually go back to the U.K. and run away again.”

Khan is one of thousands of people worldwide who’ve been forced into marriage — an action that is now a criminal offence in England and Wales, but not in Canada.

Forced marriage happens when one or both parties do not consent to the marriage or are physically or psychologically pressured into it by a third party, usually a family member. But there are questions whether the new U.K. law banning forced marriage, which came into effect in June, is enough to combat the problem.

Some fear it may even exacerbate the situation.

'I think our biggest concern about criminalization has been that it could drive the problem further underground, because a lot our victims don’t want to get their parents in trouble.' - Hannana Siddiqui, Southall Black Sisters

“I think our biggest concern about criminalization has been that it could drive the problem further underground, because a lot our victims don’t want to get their parents in trouble,” says Hannana Siddiqui, a member of London-based Southall Black Sisters.

The not-for-profit organization works with minority female victims of violence. Southall Black Sisters has written 10 recommendations to the British government — including more legal aid and immigration reform — to assist people forced into marriage who might be hesitant to seek help. The organization has been collecting signatures online and plans to present the recommendations in a couple of months.

The issue of forced marriage has grown over the past decade in the U.K., which triggered government intervention. Under the new law, offenders can be sentenced up to seven years in jail. Forcing a British national into marriage outside the country is also now illegal.

Criminalization “is a further move by this government to ensure victims are protected by the law and that they have the confidence, safety and the freedom to choose," Home Secretary Theresa May said in June.

Full-force action

The new law is just the latest measure in the U.K.'s effort to stop its citizens from being coerced into matrimony.

Girl Summit

Britain's Prime Minister David Cameron used July's 'Girl Summit 2014' in London to announce a range of measures aimed at bringing an end to forced marriage within the U.K. and abroad. (Oli Scarff/Reuters)

In 2005, the British government set up the Forced Marriage Unit (FMU) to take the lead on forced-marriage policy and casework. The FMU provides advice or support to possible cases — both inside and outside the U.K.

The FMU and the Border Force, the U.K.’s border security unit, also train safeguarding and trafficking teams at airports. The training is meant to help the teams recognize forced-marriage situations. Outbound flights to countries where forced marriage is known to happen are monitored in order to help police officers stop suspected cases.

In 2013, the FMU handled 1,302 cases, down from 1,485 in 2012. Of those, 82 per cent involved females. Although the incidents investigated by the FMU were spread across 74 different countries, almost half involved Pakistan, followed by India and Bangladesh.

Siddiqui says while the number of cases reported to the FMU has gone down, she hasn’t seen a parallel at Southall Black Sisters. The majority of cases she deals with involve female minors who are taken abroad.

A quiet problem in Canada

Forced marriage isn’t only a problem for the U.K.

“It’s an issue for the European and Western countries,” Siddiqui says. “It took about three decades for the [British] government to listen. It was very much about cultural sensitivity — respecting cultural difference. So there was a tendency not to address these problems at all.”

Siddiqui says awareness of forced marriage may be lower in other countries – including Canada – because a lot of the problems tend to involve second- or third-generation groups. The issue may not be as severe within new migrant communities, which are less likely to see discord between generations.

“It is certainly a concern in this country,” says Nicholas Bala, a family law professor at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ont. “It is an issue and very troubling. We don’t really know the extent of it.”

Airport departures sign

In 2013, the British government's Forced Marriage Unit handled 1,302 cases involving its citizens, spread across 74 different countries. (Shutterstock)

In Canada, there is no law against forced marriage. People forced into a union can get the marriage annulled in court, but the person who forced the marriage cannot be sent to jail.

The issue is, however, on the government’s radar.

The Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade provided assistance to 34 individuals in forced marriage situations from mid-2009 to May 2012, according to a 2013 report by the South Asian Legal Clinic of Ontario (SALCO). The report also indicated many incidents have not been officially noted as forced-marriage cases because many of the consular officers aren't familiar with the practice.

SALCO's 2013 report, Who/If/When to Marry: The Incidence of Forced Marriage in Ontario, looked at 219 cases of forced marriage that were identified in the province between 2010 and 2012. It found that both men and women in Ontario are coerced into marriage, but 92 per cent of those affected are women. In 25 per cent of the cases, the people involved were just 16 to 18 years old when they were married.

The report lists a variety of reasons people are pressured into marriages — usually by family members, community elders or religious leaders — including upholding cultural tradition, family reputation and honour, and in some cases the victims were threatened with violence.

Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird attended the government-led Girl Summit in London recently to support the U.K.’s call to end forced marriage. He announced Canada would spend $20 million over two years toward ending child, early and forced marriages in Bangladesh, Burkina Faso, Ethiopia, Ghana, Yemen and Zambia.

“Canada will continue to work with our allies and partners to end this practice, to empower women and girls, and enable them to contribute to more stable and prosperous communities,” says Rick Roth, a spokesman for Baird.

'I think it merits a higher profile study and willingness to respond — including engagement with the relevant communities.' - Nicholas Bala, Queen's University

Bala says more government action is needed.

“I think it merits a higher profile study and willingness to respond — including engagement with the relevant communities,” he says.

Deepa Mattoo, acting executive director of the South Asian Legal Clinic, says she does not see the need to make forced marriage illegal in Canada. But she says more government intervention is needed.

“I don’t think they’re doing enough, but they’ve started the conversation,” she says. “We want more awareness, more protection — not prohibition.”

Khan, whose ex-husband filed for divorce after she fled Scotland 14 years ago, thinks making forced marriage illegal is a good thing.

“Some people say you are going to force the problem underground, but how can you force the problem underground when it’s underground anyway?” she says.

Now 37, Khan lives in England and works as a victim advocate at Karma Nirvana, a charity that supports people who have experienced forced marriages and honour-based abuse. She wants people in these situations to know there’s help.

“I don’t want people to feel like nobody knows what they’re going through,” she says.