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Forced Marriage

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There is a clear difference 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 choice of whether or not to accept the arrangement remains with the young people.

In a forced marriage, one or both spouses do not consent to the arrangement of the marriage and some elements of duress are involved. Duress can include both physical and psychological pressure.

Forced Marriage is a violation of a person's human rights and cannot be justified on religious or cultural grounds.

Forced Marriage is primarily an issue of violence against women. Most cases involve young women and girls aged between 13 and 30, although there is evidence to suggest that as many as 15% of victims are male.

The majority of cases involve families from South Asia although there have also been cases involving families from East Asia, the Middle East, Europe and Africa. Some forced marriages take place in the UK with no overseas element, while others involve a partner coming from overseas or a British citizen being sent abroad.

Female Genital Mutilation may also be a factor in cases of forced marriage. See also Female Genital Mutilation Procedure and Pathway.

Circumstances can change quickly and increase the risk to the victim and any friends/family members supporting the victim - especially following a disclosure to the Police. Perpetrators may respond by moving the victim or bringing forward a forced marriage.

Perpetrators will use controlling and coercive methods to control the victim.

Women, men and younger members of the family can all be involved in perpetrating the abuse. Offences that may be committed include; common assault, grievous bodily harm, harassment, false imprisonment, kidnap, threats to kill and murder. There may be instances of child trafficking.

Perpetrators may take victims abroad for the purpose of forced marriage, under the pretext of a family holiday, a wedding or illness of a grandparent/family member.

  • Cultural or religious traditions;
  • Controlling unwanted behaviour and sexuality, including perceived promiscuity or being gay or lesbian;
  • Protecting 'family honour';
  • Responding to peer group or family pressure;
  • Attempting to strengthen family links;
  • Ensuring land, property and wealth remain within the family;
  • Protecting religious and cultural beliefs;
  • Preventing relationships which are perceived to be unsuitable e.g. outside the ethnic, cultural religious or caste group;
  • assisting claims for residence and citizenship;
  • Fulfilling long-standing family commitments, debts and/or obligations.

Anyone threatened with forced marriage or forced to marry against their will can apply for Forced Marriage Protection Order. Third parties, such as relatives, friends, voluntary workers and police officers, can also apply for a protection order with the leave of the court. Fifteen county courts deal with applications and make orders to prevent forced marriages. Local authorities can  seek a protection order for Adults at Risk and children without leave of the court. Guidance published by the Ministry of Justice explains how local authorities can apply for protection orders and provides information for other agencies (This is available at the Justice website).

The Anti-social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Act 2014 made it a criminal offence, with effect from 16 June 2014, to force someone to marry. This includes:

  • Taking someone overseas to force them to marry (whether or not the forced marriage takes place);
  • Marrying someone who lacks the mental Capacity to consent to the marriage (whether they're pressured to or not).

Breaching a Forced Marriage Protection Order is also now a criminal offence. The civil remedy of obtaining a Forced Marriage Protection Order through the family courts, as set out above,  continues to exist alongside the criminal offence, so victims can choose how they wish to be assisted.

Forcing someone to marry can result in a sentence of up to 7 years in prison.

Disobeying a Forced Marriage Protection Order can result in a sentence of up to 5 years in prison.

The Marriage and Civil Partnership (Minimum Age) Act 2022 raised the age of marriage and civil partnership to 18 in England and Wales with effect from 26 February 2023.

This means that 16 to 17-year-olds will no longer be able to marry or enter a civil partnership under any circumstances, including with parental or judicial consent from 26 February 2023. It will not be possible for anyone under 18 to marry or enter a civil partnership after this date.

Previously, forced marriage was only an offence if the person used a type of coercion, for example threats, to cause someone to marry, or if the person lacked capacity to consent to marry under the Mental Capacity Act. The Act therefore also expands the criminal offence of forced marriage in England and Wales to make it an offence in all circumstances to do anything intended to cause a child to marry before they turn 18. It is therefore now an offence to cause a child under the age of 18 to enter a marriage in any circumstances, without the need to prove that a form of coercion was used. The forced marriage offence will continue to include ceremonies of marriage which are not legally binding, for example in community or traditional settings.

A young person in this situation may show signs that are noted at school or by friends of their own age group.

These can often be a noticeable change from previous behaviour. Typical indicators are:

  • Truancy;
  • Decline in performance or punctuality;
  • Low motivation at school;
  • Poor exam results;
  • Being withdrawn from education by those with parental responsibility;
  • Not allowed to attend extra-curricular activities;
  • Self harm and attempted suicide;
  • Eating disorders;
  • Depression;
  • Isolation from family, friends and wider community;
  • Siblings forced to marry;
  • Family disputes;
  • Unreasonable restrictions on activities;
  • Other young people within the family reported missing;
  • Reports of domestic abuse or breaches of the peace at the family home;
  • The individual reported for offences e.g. shoplifting or substance misuse;
  • Unreasonable financial control, for example confiscation of wages/income.

See also: Multi-agency Practice Guidelines on Forced Marriage Chart of Potential Warning Signs or Indicators.

Forced marriage places children and Adults at Risk at an increased likelihood of suffering Significant Harm, for example rape and physical abuse. Some cases have resulted in the reluctant spouse being murdered. All agencies need to be aware of forced marriages and the possibility of dealing with this issue.

Information or a referral about forced marriage may be received from the young person or from a friend or relative, or from a statutory, voluntary or faith organisation. Forced marriage may also become apparent when other family issues are addressed such as domestic abuse, self-harm, child abuse or neglect, family and adolescent conflict or missing children or runaways.

It is important that staff of all agencies understand the difficulties that young people face in challenging a forced marriage. They are likely to have no experience of living outside the family and may face rejection and harassment by the family and by the community.

Forced marriage involves complex and sensitive issues. Where an agency has information which gives rise to concerns about a forced marriage involving a child or young person under 18, this must be referred to Children's Services in accordance with the Contacts and Referrals Procedure.

At this stage, this should be regarded as a child protection referral and parents would not normally be informed where it is likely that to do so would place the child or young person at an increased likelihood of suffering Significant Harm or an adult at risk of harm or it would obstruct a criminal investigation - see Information Sharing and Confidentiality Procedure.

All agencies should take particular care to ensure that they:

  • Do not use family members, friends, neighbours or community leaders as interpreters;
  • Do not send the young person against their wishes back to the family home or to any placement in which they may be unsafe e.g. extended family or friends. Do not make any assumptions that the young person will be safe;
  • Do not approach the young person's family or friends or others within the young person's community - see Section 10, Information, Record Keeping and Confidentiality;
  • Do not notify the family in advance of enquiries;
  • Do not attempt to mediate between the young person and the family. Mediation can be extremely dangerous;
  • Do not breach the young person's confidentiality, unless this is necessary to ensure their safety.

A Strategy Discussion/Meeting will be needed to deal with this issue; the Police, Housing Services, Children's Services, Health and voluntary organisations must work together to address the young person's need for information, protection, financial support, accommodation and emotional support. Legal advice will be needed to inform the Strategy Discussion/Meeting as legal action may be necessary.

When arranging to see the young person, thought should be given to where and when this should happen, for example, if the young person is coming to an office, consider arranging the appointment out of hours to minimise risks to the safety of the young person.

The young person should be interviewed in a secure and private place, on their own. They may want to be seen by a person of their own gender, and they may want to talk to someone from their own community - or to avoid talking to someone from their own community. Consideration must also be given to their preferred means of communication.

The person interviewing the young person should:

  • Discuss the range of options available to them and the possible consequences of each course of action;
  • Signpost them to a specialist adviser with skills and knowledge in this area - reference to the Government Guidance or the Government's Forced Marriage Unit may assist workers to identify such skilled advisers - see the web-links at the beginning of this chapter;
  • Develop a "cover story" - a plausible alternative reason for the young person to be at the social work office, Police station etc., in case they are seen there.

At all times confidentiality and discretion are vitally important. Consideration should be given to how to restrict access to the information about the young person and their whereabouts, whether paper-based or electronic, to named members of staff; and even in such restricted circumstances, ensure that disclosure of information is on a need to know basis only.

Children's Services will carry out an assessment of the child's circumstances and needs and make a detailed record of any reported history of abuse.

When assessing the risk of harm, a full family history must be taken to consider any forced marriage and/or abuse of any other member of the extended family. In addition, evidence of a secret boy or girlfriend and/or pregnancy of the subject young person is likely to increase the potential risk of harm.

Children's Services must:

  • Give the child or young person advice on personal safety;
  • Consider the possible need for immediate protection and placement away from the family;
  • Discuss with Police any concerns for the safety of any other children and any suspicion that a crime may have been committed.

It is important for Children's Services to obtain as much information as possible when a child or young person is first referred, as there may not be another opportunity. A record should be taken of the young person's immediate personal details and the family details including any information about the need for an interpreter.

Full details of the allegation should be recorded, including details of any threats or hostile actions against the young person.

Before making any enquiries, the worker should consider whether there is a risk that the family will become aware that these enquiries are being made.

The worker must think very carefully about the need to disclose information and to whom it may be disclosed. Disclosure may lead to the young person's estrangement from the family and increase the likelihood of suffering Significant Harm to the young person.

When considering disclosure of confidential information to another person or agency, the young person should be informed, the reasons explained, and where possible their consent obtained.

Workers should be aware that some families will stop at nothing to find the young person, and often private investigators have been used to do this. Many times the family may approach a third party such as a local Councillor or MP with a seemingly reasonable request to contact the young person; do not provide information without checking with a manager and the young person first.

Concerns about forced marriage should not be discussed with the young person's family or friends, and information should not be shared without the express consent of the young person, unless it is necessary to protect the young person and is in accordance with the Information Sharing and Confidentiality Procedure. Such action could place a child or young person at increased risk. If approached, parents may deny that the young person is being forced to marry, move the young person, expedite any travel arrangements and bring forward the forced marriage.

Where an Initial Child Protection Conference is convened, great care must be taken to manage information about the whereabouts of the young person. The social worker and their manager must discuss the arrangements with the Conference Chair and consider whether the family should be present or not, or at the same time as the young person, as threats may be made. An interpreter fully independent of the family should be present at all times.

If the young person wishes to remain in the family home it is essential to devise a way of contacting them discreetly without placing them at increased risk of harm. This should include a code word to ensure that contact has been made with the right person.

A safety plan should be put in place with the young person; looking at how to raise the alarm if there are concerns about increased risk to safety; having access to emergency money; having an escape plan.

Consideration should be given to the possibility that written communications including emails may be intercepted and that telephone communications may be detected, for example, through the phone bill.

A young person who wishes to leave the family home will need a leaving strategy. This will include issues such as:

Where could they go in an emergency?

If the young person is in immediate danger, it may be necessary to consider admission to local authority accommodation, an Emergency Protection Order or Police Protection. In this situation, it is not appropriate to rely on the extended family or family friends to provide a place of safety unless the young person can identify a person in whom they have absolute trust and a risk assessment has been undertaken. It may be necessary to place the young person outside their community and in a different local authority area.

A young person arriving in the UK for the purpose of a forced marriage, or following a forced marriage, will be in an extremely vulnerable position. They may not know anyone in this country other than those involved in or promoting the forced marriage. They may not have indefinite leave to remain in the UK, but if they were to return to their country of origin they may be ostracised and exposed to a high risk of violence. In many cases they may not speak the language and will not have knowledge about local resources. They may require a range of support services.

A young person may be going on a family holiday overseas and suspect that they will be forced to marry. Any such concerns should be taken seriously, but the arrangement of an extended holiday should not be assumed to imply that a forced marriage is planned. It is important to establish the facts as far as possible so that any action necessary can be taken to safeguard and promote the welfare of the young person. If there is a clear risk of forced marriage, and the risk is imminent, it may be necessary to take emergency action to remove the young person from home in order to protect them and prevent the travel abroad.

Where foreign travel is unavoidable, as much of the following information as possible should be gathered so that action can be taken, if necessary. (This may include seeking advice from the Government's Forced Marriage Unit).

  • Any addresses where the young person may be staying while overseas;
  • A photo of the young person;
  • Potential spouse's name;
  • Date of proposed wedding;
  • Addresses of extended family members in UK and overseas;
  • Details of travel plans, including estimated return date, and people likely to accompany the young person.

The person interviewing the young person should:

  1. Keep a separate note of their passport number and the date and place of issue;
  2. Give the young person the address and phone number of the British Embassy in the country to which they are travelling;
  3. Establish a safe means to make contact with the young person, e.g. a mobile phone that will work overseas;
  4. Encourage the young person to memorise at least one telephone number and e-mail address;
  5. Ask the young person for details of a trusted person in the UK with whom they will keep in contact whilst overseas, who will act on their behalf and who can be approached if they do not return;
  6. Take a written statement from the young person that they want the social worker (or another person) to act on their behalf if they do not return by a certain date and what they would want to happen in those circumstances;
  7. Ask the young person to make contact without fail on their return;
  8. Record some information that only the young person will know - this may help later in confirming their identity.

Part 4A of the Family Law Act 1996 (which was introduced by the Forced Marriage (Civil Protection) Act 2007) enables the courts to make forced marriage protection orders (FMPOs) to prevent or pre-empt forced marriages from occurring and to protect those who have already been forced into marriage. The order can include restrictions or requirements to protect a victim from a spouse, family member or anyone involved - and the order can relate to conduct either within or outside of England and Wales. In cases involving children, FMPOs can be used alongside wardship.

Applications for a FMPO can be made direct to the court by the person seeking protection, and local authorities as a designated relevant third party. This means that local authorities do not need to seek the court's permission to make an application for an order. Other people can also make applications with the leave of the court. This means that they have the court's permission to make an application.

Breach of a FMPO is now, by virtue of amendments to Part 4A of the Family Law Act made by section 120 of the Anti-Social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Act 2014, a criminal offence. It is accordingly no longer necessary for a power of arrest to be attached to the order, since a person may be arrested for the offence of breaching it. For further information on Forced Marriage Protection Orders and a list of courts where applications can be made, refer to His Majesty’s Court Service form FL401A.

Some forced marriage protection orders last for a specific period e.g. six months and the threat to the person may still exist after the order has expired.

It is advisable to seek specialist legal advice at the earliest opportunity.

There may be occasions (e.g. when the person is overseas) when seeking a forced marriage protection order may alert the family and practitioners should consider whether this might place the person at greater risk of harm.

Last Updated: December 7, 2023