Under a joint initiative between the Home and Foreign Offices, the legal minimum age for bringing an intended spouse into Britain would be raised from 16 to 18 years.

The initiative will also address the problem of women and men being forcibly sent abroad to marry, as well as forced marriage among residents in Britain.

Among measures under consideration was whether to make it a criminal offence to force a person into marriage.

“Forced marriage is simply an abuse of human rights”, Home Secretary David Blunkett said, announcing a joint initiative with the Foreign Office.

“It is a form of domestic violence that dehumanises people by denying them their right to choose how to live their lives.”

Foreign Secretary Jack Straw said British embassies would work with governments overseas to “stop Britons being forced into marriage”.

The Incompatible Marriage Project, a Pakistani advocacy group in Scotland, says that up to 10 percent of South Asian women in Britain are forced into marriage.

The government has dealt with almost 1,000 cases, mainly involving links to South Asian countries, since it established a task force on the issue in 2000.

Rights advocates however warned that new laws would not necessarily improve women’s plight, and stressed that the distinction between forced and arranged marriages — between consenting partners — was often unclear.

“What’s the difference between forced marriage and arranged marriage?” said Meena Patel, joint coordinator of Southall Black Sisters, a group providing services to women across Britain.

“Women are either guilt-tripped into marrying through their families and social pressure, or put into forced marriages. It’s not that simple,” she said, urging the government to consult grassroots and community groups.

Patel said police and social workers should also be better trained to help women leave abusive marriages, whether arranged or forced, instead of enforcing a common practice of encouraging mediation and a return to the home.

Patel also criticised the move to block spouses under 18 entering Britain, saying: “I don’t think bringing in new immigration laws is the way forward,” she said, as it would only affect a “very small” number cases.

Southall Black Sisters deals with more than 2,500 cases of abuse, a category which includes forced marriage, mainly in Indian, Pakistani and Bangladeshi communities.

The move to raise the minimum age for a spouse’s entry into Britain, which will be put before parliament, is expected to be in force by December.