What is forced marriage?
Forced marriage is where someone is forced to marry against their will. This can happen in secret and can also be planned by parents, family or religious leaders. Victims of forced marriage may be subjected to threats, physical violence or sexual violence, or psychological or emotional pressure, including being made to feel like they’re bringing shame on their family if they do not proceed.
Most forced marriages involving British girls and women take place overseas, with the victim taken abroad for the ceremony.
Aneeta Prem, founder of the charity Freedom, which educates young people about forced marriage, said: “In the most tragic cases, people forced into marriage become domestic slaves by day and sexual slaves by night.”
Is it a crime?
Yes. Forcing someone to marry against their will has been a crime in England and Wales since 16 June 2014. The law also applies to UK nationals overseas who are at risk of becoming the victim of a forced marriage, meaning that law enforcement agencies can arrest perpetrators in other countries where a UK national is involved, and bring charges against them in courts at home.
The offence includes taking someone overseas to force them to marry, whether or not the marriage takes place, and marrying someone who lacks the mental capacity to consent to the marriage (whether they are pressured to or not).
Is forced marriage the same as ‘arranged marriage’?
No. In arranged marriages, which are common in some cultures, both parties consent to the assistance of their parents or a third party (such as a matchmaker) in choosing a spouse. They are free to decide whether or not to marry the partner selected for them. If either one declines, the marriage will not go ahead. Arranged marriages are not crimes.
How common is forced marriage?
The government’s Forced Marriage Unit (FMU) gave advice or support relating to a possible or actual forced marriage in 759 cases in 2020. A quarter of the cases involved young people under 18, and 79% were female victims.
According to the charity Plan UK, throughout the world every two seconds a child becomes a victim of forced marriage.
Who is most at risk from it?
Forced marriage is not a problem specific to one country or culture. According to the Forced Marriage Unit Statistics, in 2020, the FMU handled cases relating to 54 countries excluding the UK. No major faith in the UK advocates forced marriage. Freely given consent is a prerequisite of Christian, Jewish, Hindu, Muslim and Sikh marriages.
According to figures from the FMU, in 2020, the four countries with the largest number of cases where the forced marriage was due to take place, or where the spouse was currently residing (or both) were Pakistan (286 cases, or 38%), Bangladesh (69 cases, 9%), India (44 cases, 6%) and Afghanistan (30 cases, 4%).
What sort of signals might suggest that someone is at risk of forced marriage?
There are some common warning signs that might suggest someone is at risk:
The young person suddenly becomes more withdrawn, spends less time with friends than they used to and then doesn’t answer calls or texts
Often victims of forced marriage are subjected to violence to pressurise them into it, so you may notice bruising, possibly on their upper arms. But in most cases the pressure is emotional, so it is harder to detect
If someone you think is at risk suddenly goes away on holiday without warning, especially in the summer, this could indicate they are in danger
If someone has siblings who were forced to marry – or even just married young – this can be an indication they are at risk
If an older child refuses to marry, this can increase the pressure on younger siblings (especially girls) in order to uphold the family honour
What can you do if you suspect someone is at risk of forced marriage?
If you are worried that someone you know may be about to be taken abroad to be married against their will, you should contact the Forced Marriage Unit on 020 7008 0151 or email email@example.com, or call the helpline for the charity Karma Nirvana on 0800 5999 247. You should give as many details as you can, including:
- Where the person has gone
- When they were due back
- When you last heard from them
Never raise the issue with, or make an approach to, the family of the victim. This will only increase the risk of harm.
What will happen next?
The Forced Marriage Unit will contact the relevant embassy. If they’re a British national, the embassy will try to contact the person and help them get back to the UK if that’s what they want.
What options are available to a victim involved in an offence of forced marriage?
Victims may pursue either a criminal conviction, under the Anti-Social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Act 2014, or use civil legislation, and ask the court for a Forced Marriage Protection Order (FMPO).
FMPOs can be used by a civil court against any individuals suspected of trying to force a victim into marriage. Each FMPO is unique and designed to protect victims according to their individual circumstances.
The government has produced a guide to help people who have escaped from a forced marriage to take control of their lives and focus on the future. Forced marriage: A survivor’s handbook offers advice on claiming benefits, getting a divorce, and assuming a new identity.
What punishment will offenders receive?
A criminal conviction for forcing someone to marry carries a maximum penalty of seven years in prison.
Breaching a FMPO is also a criminal offence, carrying a maximum penalty of five years in prison or an unlimited fine. However, victims who don’t wish to report the breach to the police may instead seek enforcement of the breach using the civil court’s ‘contempt of court’ powers.
To help you raise awareness among your community about forced marriage and how to spot the signs, we’ve compiled a range of free campaign materials that you can use to educate and inform people in your neighbourhood.
Leaflets and posters that you can print off and hand out at events or leave in public places such as GP surgeries or schools, for people to pick up.
However, leaflets should not be put through letterboxes, just in case a perpetrator sees it and suspects the victim is seeking help or reporting their behaviour.
Online materials such as campaign websites, videos, GIFs and graphics that you can share on social media sites such as your Neighbourhood Watch Facebook group or Twitter feed.
Neighbourhood Watch has produced a leaflet urging members to be aware of the signs of forced marriage, honour-based violence or female genital mutilation in their communities. You can find it in the Downloads section on this page; titled 'Honour abuse'.
ChildLine has a forced marriage webpage here and has also produced a short animation, encouraging children and young people to call the charity’s helpline for help and advice. You can view ‘Layla’s forced marriage story: Your tomorrow’ here.
The government’s Forced Marriage Unit has published a film aimed at raising public awareness of the impact of forced marriage, and warn of the criminal consequences of involvement, building on the outreach and education work of the FMU. The film is told from the perspective of a victim’s older brother, who is complicit in arranging her forced marriage but unaware of its true impact until it is too late.
The Home Office has also worked with Jasvinder Sanghera, a survivor of honour crimes and forced marriage and funder of the charity Karma Nirvana, who talked about her experiences to produce a film.
Fixers UK has produced a film called Forced Marriage and Honour Abuse.
Mridul Wadhwa, Rape Crisis Scotland, has written a blog: Acknowledging sexual violence in forced marriage.