A new law criminalising forced marriages in England and Wales has been welcomed by campaigners and human rights groups.

The law, which took effect on Monday, carries a jail sentence of up to seven years for parents who force their children into marriage. It also applies to British nationals forced into marriage overseas.

However, critics of the legislation argue it could make it more difficult for victims to come forward and push the issue underground.

Others, like Diana Nammi of the Iranian and Kurdish Women’s Rights Organisation (IKWRO) say the law will reduce instances of forced marriage and empower victims to seek help.

"Many of our clients have told us that if forced marriage had been criminalised when they were facing it, their families may not have gone ahead with it because they would have abided by the law."

The UK Home Office says it dealt with 1,302 cases of possible forced marriages in 2013 alone. The cases involved 74 countries, with 43% relating to Pakistan, 11% to India and 10% to Bangladesh.

Many of our clients have told us that if forced marriage had been criminalised when they were facing it, their families may not have gone ahead with it because they would have abided by the law.

Diana Nammi of the Iranian and Kurdish Women’s Rights Organisation (IKWRO)

In cases where the age was known, 15% of the victims were under the age of 16. A further 25% were aged 16-17.

Campaigners and the government have been careful to distinguish between the long-standing tradition of arranged marriages in many communities, which take place with consent, and forced marriages.

The Home Office defines forced marriages as when "one or both spouses do not consent to the marriage but are coerced into it" through means which can include "physical, psychological, financial, sexual and emotional pressure".

It adds that in the cases of people with learning disabilities, coercion is not required for a marriage to be forced.

UK Home Secretary Theresa May says the government plans to take further action in addition to the new law.

"I am proud to say that the UK is already a world-leader in the fight to stamp out this harmful practice with the government’s Forced Marriage Unit working hard to tackle this terrible practice in the UK and overseas.

Ash Chand, from The National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, called the new law "a huge step forward which we hope will deter those plotting against their own children.

"Many young people who call our ChildLine service about this issue are frightened, concerned and feel control of their lives is being wrenched from them."

Source: Agencies