Protecting adults at risk in London: Good practice resource

Investigating adult abuse: Forced marriage - issues to consider

Allegations of forced marriage must be taken seriously. The risks may be high and can escalate quickly. Do not confuse the term ‘arranged marriage’ with ‘forced marriage’. There is a clear distinction between an arranged marriage and a forced marriage. Arranged marriages have been customary in many communities around the world for a very long time. In an arranged marriage the families of both spouses take a leading role in arranging the marriage, but the choice of accepting the arrangement remains with the individuals.

In a forced marriage at least one party does not consent to the marriage and some element of duress is involved. A marriage involving someone who lacks the mental capacity to consent to it should also be considered as a forced marriage.

The person’s capacity to consent to a marriage should be clearly assessed through a properly conducted capacity assessment on that specific issue. There will be situations, however, where there are reasonable grounds to question a person’s lack of capacity to consent to a marriage (e.g. the person is known to have severe learning disabilities), even though an assessment has not been carried out. Any proposal to prevent the marriage of someone suspected to lack capacity has to be referred to court. The court can issue an interim prevention judgement, prior to a full hearing, when the marriage is thought to be imminent.

There is specific government guidance on forced marriages involving people with learning disabilities, to which you should refer.

Related incidents

Incidents related to forced marriage can involve threats to kill, common assault, harassment, false imprisonment and kidnap, and may lead to even more serious crimes such as rape, physical assault and murder. For more information refer to the Forced Marriage Unit’s Multi-agency practice guidelines: handling cases of forced marriage (20).

Motives prompting forced marriage

Parents who force their children to marry often justify their behaviour as a way of protecting their offspring, building stronger families and preserving cultural or religious traditions. They do not see anything wrong in their actions. In some cases where young adults at risk are forced into marriage, family members believe they are providing a future ‘carer’ for their adult child, and the intended spouse may have no idea of the levels of care required by their bride/groom-to-be.

Criminal law and forced marriage

Although there is no specific criminal offence of ‘forcing someone to marry’, the law does provide protection from the crimes that can be committed when forcing someone into a marriage. Perpetrators, usually parents or family members, have been prosecuted for offences including threatening behaviour, harassment, assault, abduction, rape and murder.

The needs of victims will vary widely. Police Community Safety Units contain specially trained officers to deal with such investigations. Situations involving forced marriage can be high-risk and fast-moving, so early liaison with the police is vital.

Victims and potential victims can now be given the protection of the civil courts via a forced marriage protection order (21).

Needs of victims

People forced into marriage often become estranged from their families. Sometimes they themselves become trapped in a cycle of abuse with serious long-term consequences. Many women forced into a marriage suffer from domestic abuse and serious sexual assault. They feel unable to leave because of a lack of family support, economic pressures and other social circumstances. They may remain in the marriage for years before they feel able to challenge the situation.

Isolation is one of the biggest problems facing victims of forced marriage. They may feel they have no one to speak to about their situation, and these feelings of isolation are very similar to those experienced by victims of domestic abuse.