By Sonia Elks
LONDON, May 24 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) — The number of calls to a specialist British unit tackling forced marriage leapt to a record high last year, with nearly 1 in 5 involving a child aged under 16, data released on Friday showed.
The Forced Marriage Unit dealt with 1,764 cases in 2018, a jump of 47% on the year previously, with more than 40% of cases related to Pakistan but reports involving dozens of countries ranging from Somalia to Iraq and Romania and in Britain itself.
Officials and campaigners hailed the rise as a sign of increased awareness over the issue, but charity Freedom said the number still represented only a fraction of those affected.
"It is positive people feel they can come forward rather than risk being serially raped, suffering domestic abuse and having a life of torture and misery," Aneeta Prem, the founder of Freedom, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
"But this is completely the tip of the iceberg ... There is a lot more to be done in terms of supporting people and them knowing that it is a crime."
British officials said the data showed they had helped more victims than ever in 2018, with cases ranging from emergency calls for help from victims abroad who faced imminent forced marriage to more general requests for advice.
"We will continue to raise awareness of forced marriage so that all those affected by it know where they can go for support," Victoria Atkins, the minister for crime, safeguarding and vulnerability, said in a statement.
Figures from the Forced Marriage Unit, a government project, showed about a third of all contacts in 2018 involved someone aged under 18, and nearly 20% a child aged 15 or younger.
Calls to the unit were highest in July, when girls risk being taken abroad during school holidays to be married.
Britain banned forced marriage in 2014 but there have only been two convictions, both of which were last year.
Britain faced criticism earlier this year after it emerged that it was charging victims of forced marriages for the cost of their rescue from other countries. This prompted a change in the policy and officials cancelled outstanding loans to victims.
(Reporting by Sonia Elks @soniaelks; Editing by Belinda Goldsmith. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's and LGBT+ rights, human trafficking, property rights, and climate change. Visit http://news.trust.org)