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Victim services

Forced Marriage: spotting the hidden signs

Close-up of a woman in a traditional wedding outfit placing a ring on the hand of a man. She has a lot of bracelets on her arms and her hands have mehndi designs applied to them.

Reena Ganger, a Catch22 Caseworker at Leicestershire Victim First, explores the topic of Forced Marriage in a new guide for professionals. The guide is designed to help professionals understand what forced marriage is, what the cultural and social reasons are, and how to protect and safeguard victims at risk of forced marriage.

Forced marriage (FM) is where one party, or both, are physically pressured into get married. This could be though physical and sexual violence, blackmail or imprisonment within the home. It could also involve taking someone abroad to force them to get married, or coercing someone who lacks the mental capacity to give consent to get married.

Over the past decade there has been a considerable amount of progress to recognise forced marriage as a criminal offence, and it’s been illegal in England and Wales since 2014.

Supporting victims

Statistics by the Forced Marriage Unit show that 80% of forced marriage in the UK happens during the school holidays. One reason for this is that teachers and other professionals have much less contact with children during this time, so they are an opportunity for families to go abroad undetected. For that reason it is important that police officers, airport staff, teachers, doctors and other professional agencies can identify any warning signs and risks to prevent a forced marriage from taking place.

While progress is being made to understand forced marriage, there is still a vast amount to be learned, and many services still have a limited understanding of the issue.  Many frontline officers and professionals are still struggling to recognise what forced marriage is and identity the triggers associated. Studies have also found that practitioners did not want to intervene in cases of forced marriage, and instead often encourage victims to return back to their families, thus putting them further at risk. This is concerning as forced marriage is an underreported crime and victims are often seeking help as a last resort.

What are the effects of forced marriage?

“From a very early age I understood implicitly that as a girl you have to be married off as soon as possible – education wasn’t paramount in my family or my community.

“I knew that was coming for me. I just accepted it. I was conditioned to believe that was my role. Abuse was something so normal.”

– Brandon and Hafez, 2008

One of the biggest problems forced marriage victims are faced with is the issue around isolation. Victims who are forced to travel abroad will find it very difficult to communicate with anyone and will be kept on a constant watch, suffering abuse not only from the potential spouse but from the extended family. This can impact the rights of an individual and limit opportunities for further education and learning leading to little or no career choice.

Children conceived in a forced marriage can be seriously affected by it. Either by learning that violence is acceptable, or being traumatised by witnessing it.

Why does forced marriage happen?

There are many factors that contribute to families forcing their children or family members into marriage. While it is important to understand these to effectively support the victim, it is important to remember that the practice can never be justified. Factors can include:

  1. Families or individuals believing that forced marriage is acceptable and is a way to protect their children while preserving cultural and traditional beliefs.
  2. The view that if a person rejects a proposal, leaves their current spouse or seeks a divorce it brings dishonour or shame on the family.
  3. A reaction to what are considered to be unsuitable relationships (which might sit outside of caste, religion or culture) and pregnancy outside marriage.
  4. Families or individuals who want to control sexuality and behaviour. This might include identifying as lesbian, gay bisexual or transgender, or behaviour that is perceived to be too “westernised”.
  5. An attempt to ensure that land and wealth remain in the family, or to strengthen ties between families.
  6. An attempt to ensure care for a child or adult with special needs.
  7. An attempt to assist claims for UK residence and citizenship.