Forced marriage is considered an abuse of human rights and is not justified on any religious or cultural basis. It is condemned by every major faith. Freely given consent is part of Christian, Jewish, Hindu, Muslim and Sikh marriages.
There is a clear distinction between a forced marriage and an arranged marriage. In arranged marriages, the families of both spouses take a leading role in arranging the marriage, but the final choice remains with the young people. In a forced marriage, one or both spouses does not consent to the marriage and some element of physical and emotional pressure is involved. Most cases of forced marriage involve young women and girls aged between 13 and 30, although there is some evidence that as many as 15 per cent of victims are male. Some cases of forced marriage take place in the UK and in others, the young person is taken overseas and forced to marry there.
Forced marriage places children and vulnerable adults at risk of rape, emotional abuse and physical harm and possible death. The perpetrators, who are usually parents or family members, can be prosecuted for offences including threatening behaviour, assault, kidnap, abduction, imprisonment, and murder. Sexual intercourse within marriage, but without consent, is rape. Cases of forced marriage are difficult, complex and potentially very risky for the young person involved and any professionals dealing with such cases should get advice, support and consultation from specialist practitioners.
Forced marriage should be seen as a very specific form of domestic bullying, within specific communities. As with other forms of bullying, it covers a range of behaviour, from emotional blackmail, to domestic violence, culminating in murder in a tiny number of horrific cases. It is seldom an isolated episode, but usually forms part of a longer term pattern. However, honour crimes do differ significantly, while typical incidents of domestic violence involve men using force against their wives, honour-based abuses regularly involve a woman’s own sons, brothers and sisters, as well as members of their extended family and in-laws.
The definition of domestic violence now includes any acts carried out by extended family members.
Many young people turn to a professional as a last resort and they can be very reluctant to talk about their worries for fear that their families will find out. The entire family may be involved, with a wider network of relatives and even non-relatives also complicit. At this point the issue of forced marriage may not even be mentioned and the practitioner has to be very alert and sensitive to any underlying signals and risk factors. Young people living under the threat of a forced marriage, or living within one, may face significant harm if their families realise that they have asked for help. All aspects of their safety need to be carefully weighed up at every stage and whether it is safe for them to return home is a key decision from the start. The young person will need practical help such as accommodation and financial support, but also emotional support and information about their rights and choices.
Typically a young person fears they may be forced to marry in the UK or overseas, they may have been told that they are going to visit relatives, attend a wedding or that a grandparent or close family relative is ill, but they suspect that the ulterior motive is to force them to marry. The family deny this, but then move the child or bring forward the travel arrangements and the forced marriage. There may be a family history of forced marriage with other siblings or missing persons within the family. There may be evidence of domestic violence, self-harming, family disputes, and unreasonable restrictions on the young person such as removal from education or house arrest.
Some families go to considerable lengths to find their children who run away and young people who leave home to escape a forced marriage, or the threat of one, are at risk of significant harm if they are returned to their family. They may be reported as missing by their families, but no mention is made of the forced marriage. So if the young person is found it is very important that practitioners explore the underlying reasons before any decisions are made.
There are four main areas to assess in relation to forced marriage.
- Siblings who have been forced to marry
- Family disputes or evidence of domestic violence and abuse
- Running away from home
- Unreasonable restrictions such as house arrest
- Poor performance, poor attendance
- Limited career choices or not allowed to work
- Unreasonable financial control such as confiscation of wages/income
- Truancy or low motivation at school
- Poor exam results
- Sudden withdrawal from school
- Self-harming, attempted suicide, eating disorders, depression, isolation
What to do
Following Child Protection procedures make a child protection referral and complete a confirmation of referral form.
The role of mediation
Mediation, reconciliation and family counselling as a response to forced marriage can be extremely dangerous and may increase the young person’s vulnerability and place them in danger. Any unsupervised contact with their family needs to be carefully assessed as it can place the young person at risk of further emotional abuse or lead to pressure being placed on them to return home. However if the young person does wish to go home or talk to their family all the risks should be explained and a safety plan put in place.
The Forced Marriage Unit is a single point of confidential advice and assistance for those at risk of being forced into marriage overseas. Contact the Forced Marriage Unit on 020 7008 0230 or 020 7008 0151 www.fco.gov.uk