Parents who coerce their children into forced marriages could face prosecution under proposals unveiled by ministers.
The forced marriage unit deals with about 250 cases a year
Currently families who compel their children to marry can be charged only with offences like assault or kidnap.
But now ministers are holding a three-month consultation to decide whether to create a specific criminal offence of forcing someone to marry.
The joint Home and Foreign Office forced marriage unit has dealt with 1,000 cases over the past four years.
The police have already told the government that forced marriage should be a new, separate offence.
They believe bringing in a new law will make prosecutions easier and send a clear message that intimidating young people into marriages they do not want is unacceptable in the UK.
In a government consultation document, entitled "Forced Marriage - a wrong, not a right", ministers accept that the arguments against creating a specific criminal offence outweigh those for it.
But Home Office Minister Baroness Scotland said a new offence would act as a preventative measure and "say to people this is wrong".
"It's like a clarion call that this is not legal, you are not going to get away with it," she told reporters in central London.
"I don't know if it's true that it will make it less likely that people come forward - that's why the consultation is so important."
She said the government recognised that this was "a very sensitive issue with no clear or easy answers".
It was "not a south east Asian issue", she argued, but affected communities including Pakistan, Bangladesh, India, Syria, Sri Lanka, USA, Holland, Somalia, Lebanon, Hong Kong, Turkey and Bosnia.
"It is an abuse of human rights and a form of domestic violence which cannot be justified on religious or cultural grounds," she said.
ARGUMENTS FOR CREATING A SPECIFIC CRIMINAL OFFENCE:
Creating a deterrent
Giving young people a negotiating tool
Make it easier to take action against perpetrators
But many young people involved in forced marriages have a "real dilemma", she added.
"They love their parents - they want to continue the relationship - but they want to stop what's happening. They want to stop the abuse."
A spokesman for the Association of Chief Police Officers (ACPO) said: "Forcing someone into a marriage against their will is a clear abuse of their human rights. The police service is committed to tackling forced marriage and where a criminal offence has taken place, we will take positive action to enforce and uphold the law.
"The police service welcomes the forthcoming consultation on the creation of a specific offence for forcing someone into marriage. We will continue to provide support to victims of such practices and protect those at risk."
The group Imkaan, which supports Asian women and children experiencing domestic violence, said: "We're really pleased to see the government engaging in a public consultation on this important issue and look forward to hearing what our members have to say."
Creating a specific offence would cost around £420,000 in the first year of implementation and £220,000 in subsequent years.
Possible penalties could include fines, community punishment and imprisonment.
The government would also want to be able to prosecute in the case of forced marriages that take place overseas, where the perpetrator and the victim are British citizens.
ARGUMENTS AGAINST CREATING A SPECIFIC OFFENCE:
Victims stop asking for help through fear of families being prosecuted
Parents may take children abroad and marry them off
Might be misinterpreted as an attack on black or ethnic minority groups
Would be expensive and funds might be better spent on improving support for those at risk
Prosecutions could be harrowing for victims
BBC crime correspondent Neil Bennett says hundreds, possibly thousands of Britons, come under this kind of pressure from within their communities.
It is not only linked to so-called honour killings, where families take revenge on individuals who resist their wishes, but a high suicide rate among young Asian women.
Most cases involve females, with some victims as young as 13, although experts suggest up to 15% of cases may involve men marrying against their will.
Those being consulted include the police, social services, support groups in the voluntary sector and individuals who have been forced into marriages themselves.
Forced marriages differ entirely from legitimate arranged marriages, which take place with the consent of all parties involved.