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The term forced marriage conjures up the notion of the “shotgun wedding”; of an incensed father marching the groom up the aisle to marry the pregnant bride to save the families’ reputations. Surely this practice belongs to centuries past – no, it is alive and thriving in the 21st century.
96% of the world’s countries have laws that specify when people can legally marry. In England, Wales and Northern Ireland this age is 18 years, although 16- and 17-year-olds can marry with parental consent. Charities including Barnardo’s claim that this contributes to sexual violence and domestic abuse and possible forced marriages, and want to ban under-18s marrying in England, Wales and Northern Ireland.
They warn of the “invisible but thriving issue” of marriage by parental consent in the UK, saying that parental consent often amounts to coercion, and that teenage girls are regularly married off to older men who they have never met.
In response, the UK Government has said that all couples must enter into marriage freely by law, but a spokesperson added that the Government was “listening carefully to the debate on the legal age of marriage”. In Scotland the legal age for marriage is 16 years; the reason for UK consenting couples under the age of 18 without parental consent, eloping to places such as Gretna Green to marry.
Only six countries, Equatorial Guinea, Gambia, Saudi Arabia, Somalia, South Sudan and Yemen, do not specify a minimum age for marriage. According to the United Nations, children from around the world, including some just above or even below the age of puberty, are often forced to marry. In Albania, Bulgaria, Macedonia and the Ukraine, for instance, girls in Romani communities often marry below the legal minimum age.
In Pakistan, the US State Department noted that, despite prohibitions, forced marriages were common for many children, some younger than 15 years. A child marriage is considered to be a form of forced marriage, given that one or both parties cannot have expressed full, free and informed consent.
As you can see, forced marriage is not necessarily specific to one country or one culture. Whilst some people and communities seem to think that forced marriage is okay, in fact, numerous international and regional legal instruments condemn the practices of forced and early marriage and all major religions, that is, Muslim, Hindu, Sikh, Christian and Jewish, are vocally against the practice.
The UK Government’s Forced Marriage Unit (FMU) has handled cases relating to countries across the world including Asia, the Middle East, Africa, Europe and North America and has a list of 66 “focus countries”; that is, countries with a high risk where a forced marriage is due to take place, the country where it has taken place, or the country that the spouse is currently residing in (or all).
Countries with the highest number of forced marriage cases reported to the FMU in 2019 were:
- Pakistan – 559 cases (41%).
- Bangladesh – 144 cases (11%).
- India – 65 cases (5%).
- Afghanistan – 54 cases (4%).
- Somalia (including Somaliland) – 31 cases (2%).
- Iraq – 23 cases (2%).
- Romania – 22 cases (2%).
The FMU also reported that in 2019, 72 cases (5%) had no overseas element, with the potential or actual forced marriage taking place entirely within the UK. The FMU official figures show that in 2019 they supported 1,355 cases related to a possible forced marriage, however, this number does not take into account cases that are not reported to them, so the number is probably much higher.
The UK’s Halo Project Charity estimate that as many as 8,000 young women a year are forced into marriages, which is over four times as many as those reported to the FMU.
Of the cases reported to the FMU:
- 363 cases (27%) involved victims below 18 years of age.
- 485 cases (36%) involved victims aged 18-25.
- 37 cases (10%) involved victims with a learning disability.
- 1,080 cases (80%) involved female victims.
- 262 cases (19%) involved male victims.
Gender in the remaining 13 cases was unknown. It should also be noted that there was an increase from 12 cases in 2018 to 29 cases in 2019 involving people who identified themselves as lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender (LGBTQ+).
What is Forced Marriage?
A forced marriage is where one or both people do not or cannot consent to the marriage and pressure, coercion or abuse is used to force them into the marriage. Forced marriage is illegal in the UK under the Anti-social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Act 2014 making it a criminal offence in England, Wales and Scotland to force someone to marry. It is also a criminal offence in Northern Ireland under separate legislation, the Forced Marriages Act 2007.
The status of forced marriage is also covered by the Matrimonial Causes Act 1973, which states that a marriage shall be voidable if: “either party to the marriage did not validly consent to it, whether in consequence to duress, mistake, unsoundness of mind or otherwise”.
Any person may be forced into marriage, and this includes people of all ages, genders, ethnicities and religions. It is a form of domestic abuse, child abuse and a serious abuse of human rights. For a marriage to be consensual, it must be entered into freely by both people getting married.
They should feel that they have a choice and a right to say no. Legally, people with certain learning disabilities or severe mental health conditions are not able to consent to marriage, even if they feel the marriage is what they want, as they do not have the mental capacity to do so.
The pressure put on a person to marry can take different forms:
- Physical pressure – Threats or violence (including sexual violence).
- Emotional or psychological pressure – Making someone feel they are bringing shame on their family, making someone believe that those close to them may become vulnerable or it would be letting the family down by going against their cultural or religious expectations if they don’t agree to marry, or by refusing them freedom or money unless they agree to the marriage.
People force others into marriage due to a range of factors such as safeguarding wealth and family reputation. Parents may have made a promise when the child was young and they feel they can’t let the other family down. Parents call their children selfish and they are told they are bringing shame on the honour of the family.
Often a number of them may be forced to marry a member of their extended family, for example, a cousin. There have been cases reported where people have been taken abroad without knowing that they are to be married. When they arrive in that country, their passport(s)/travel documents have been taken away from them to stop them from returning to the UK.
The FMU have outlined the following reasons why people coerce others into matrimony:
- To control unwanted behaviour and sexuality, and prevent ‘unsuitable’ relationships, i.e. with people outside their ethnic, cultural, caste or religious group.
- To protect perceived cultural or religious ideals.
- Family ‘honour’ or long-standing family commitments.
- Peer group or family pressure.
- To ensure land, property and wealth remain in the family.
- To strengthen family links.
- For protection when a parent, usually the father, has died.
- To assist claims for residency and citizenship.
- To provide a carer for a disabled family member / reduce the ‘stigma’ of disability.
While it is important to have an understanding of the motives that drive parents to force their children to marry, these motives should not be accepted as justification for denying a person the right to choose a marriage partner and enter freely into marriage.
Forced marriage is not the same thing as an arranged marriage. An arranged marriage is a marital union planned by the families, typically the parents, of the couple and both parties give their full consent to the union.
There is an expectation that all parties will have an opinion and an opportunity to decline. Many couples say that they are happy for their parents to choose their life partner knowing that if they don’t like their choice, they have the right to say no. It is estimated that over half of the marriages worldwide are arranged.
Potential Warning Signs
Forced marriage is a hidden crime in the same way as other domestic abuse offences are, and often the clues that it is happening are so subtle or hidden, they may be missed. These indicators do not automatically point to a forced marriage, but they do indicate that something is wrong.
Both males and females in all age groups facing a forced marriage may become anxious, depressed and emotionally withdrawn with low self-esteem.
Some of the other warning signs to look out for may include:
- Excessive parental restriction and control of movements including unreasonable restrictions such as being kept at home by their parents (‘house arrest’) or being unable to complete their education.
- History of siblings leaving education early to marry.
- A child talking about an upcoming family holiday that they are worried about.
- Fears that they will be taken out of education and kept abroad.
- Evidence of self-harm, treatment for depression, attempted suicide, social isolation, eating disorders or substance abuse.
- A person always being accompanied including to school, college and doctors’ appointments.
- A person directly disclosing that they are worried s/he will be forced to marry.
This is not an exhaustive list of indicators to look out for, every case will differ and every person at risk of being forced to marry may react and show signs differently.
It is important that everyone with connections to children, young people and vulnerable adults is vigilant, and if concerned by any uncharacteristic behaviours, that they raise these concerns with professionals responsible for safeguarding children, young people and vulnerable adults from abuse.
Raising your concerns directly with the family could put the person at greater risk of harm, including the parents immediately taking the person out of this country. The Government have published multi-agency practice guidelines for handling cases of forced marriage, providing advice and support to front line practitioners who have responsibilities to safeguard children and protect adults from the abuses associated with forced marriage.
The Impact of Forced Marriage
Anyone forced into marriage faces an increased risk of rape and sexual abuse as they may not wish to consent, or may not be the legal age to consent, to a sexual relationship.
This may lead to physical and/or mental health problems including psychological or emotional problems, such as depression or self-harm, physical injuries and underage or unwanted pregnancies.
Although both males and females are affected by forced marriage, females especially encounter many difficulties after the forced marriage occurs. They are often apart from their friends and family and can suffer domestic abuse at the hands of their husband or in-laws.
Those who have lived in an unconsented marriage for a long time may find it difficult to leave, especially if they have children; they often have no financial independence from their husbands. Then there is the impact that this can have on children within the forced marriage, which can be immense. Children may learn that it is acceptable to be abusive and that violence is an effective way to get what you want, perpetuating the cycle of violence and abuse.
Those taken abroad to marry, may be isolated, have no access to money, telephones or their passports, and their movement will be restricted, making it near impossible to leave.
Help and Support
Many people either being forced to marry or those already in a forced marriage find it difficult to ask for help. Often, they love their parents and don’t want to disappoint them or go against their wishes or risk being disowned by them.
They may also fear the consequences, not only to themselves, but also to their family and friends if they walk out of a forced marriage and report it to the authorities. Making the contact with authorities may also involve some risk for the person involved, which is one reason why under-reporting is fairly common.
As forced marriage can involve a range of criminal offences you can get legal protection from forced marriage in the civil courts. You can apply for a Forced Marriage Protection Order (FMPO) if you have been forced into a marriage or you believe you are being forced into a marriage. The marriage does not have to have occurred for you to gain protection.
A FMPO is a court order containing provisions that can restrict a person’s actions or require them to take certain steps in order to protect you from abuse and to stop the person(s) making arrangements for the marriage. This could mean that the order is made against one person or many people who are involved in the forced marriage. You can make an application for a FMPO at the Family Court. There is no court fee for applying for a FMPO.
If you are not able to make the application yourself, for example you cannot leave the house or access the courts, or are in another country, or you are too frightened, then someone else can make the application on your behalf.
Other services that can help and advise you or someone you are concerned about include:
If you are worried that an arranged trip abroad may lead to a forced marriage, tell a trusted adult or close friend that you are going away, give them a code word that will alert them that you are in danger and keep their contact details with you. Ensure that they know where you are going to. It is useful that they have your passport details too, so that if they need to alert the authorities, they have information of your whereabouts and your identity.
If you are being taken abroad unwillingly, you can contact the FMU to tell them what is happening, or if this is not possible, you could alert security staff at the port or airport or call 999 for urgent help.
If you have not been able to do this before you travel, even though you are abroad, you still have the right to legal protection as the people forcing you into marriage may be in breach of the law in the UK and other countries. The local British Embassy will get involved if you or someone you know informs them or the UK’s Forced Marriage Unit about your situation.
If you are abroad and don’t have access to your passport, providing you are a British national, the British Embassy can issue you with an Emergency Travel Document, once they are satisfied of your identity, which is why leaving passport details in advance with a trusted friend can be important.
If you are not a British national the Forced Marriage Unit would advise you to also contact the nearest Embassy of the country whose nationality you hold to seek help with getting a new travel document. A list of British organisations worldwide can be found here.