Forced Marriage

Did you know?

  • Approximately 8000-10,000 forced marriages of British citizens take place every year.
  • A 56% decrease in forced marriage referrals was observed in 2020. This is thought to be due to the wedding and lockdown restrictions during the Covid-19 pandemic.
  • Many cases involved people who were ill, disabled or had learning disabilities. 


What is forced marriage?

Forced marriage is where one or both people do not consent to the marriage.  Forced marriage is a crime and can result in a sentence of up to 7 years in prison.  It is also a violation of a person’s human rights.  There are two types of forced marriage:
1)    where pressure or abuse is used; or
2)    where one or both people cannot consent
Forced marriage is different from arranged marriage.  In arranged marriages, although the marriage is set up by the family, the marrying couple consent to the arranged marriage. Victims of forced marriage often end up enduring long-term physical and sexual abuse in their marriage.  This can have a serious impact especially on any children born of the marriage.  
Some adults are at greater risk of forced marriage due to their age, disability or ill-health. Sometimes a person is forced to marry someone so that they can become a carer. Everyone who has the mental capacity to marry has the right to:
•    choose who they marry
•    decide when they want to marry or 
•    decide whether to marry at all

Every person has the right to be free from the abuse and violation of a forced marriage. 
What kind of pressure is involved in forced marriage?

When people are pressured into marrying someone against their will there may be:
•    physical or sexual violence
•    threats
•    emotional or psychological pressure (for example when someone is made to feel they will bring shame on their family if they do not marry)
•    financial abuse

When can someone not marry?

An adult can only marry if they are over the legal age to marry which is 18 years and have the mental capacity to enter into a marriage.  If someone lacks mental capacity, then they are incapable of consenting to a marriage.
Depending on their particular condition, people may lack capacity to marry if they have:
•    learning disabilities
•    brain damage or a brain disorder
•    dementia
•    severe mental health issue 

Someone may lack capacity to marry temporarily, or it may be life-long. It depends on the nature of their particular illness or condition.

A person also has to give informed consent to a marriage for it to be valid.  If a spouse has not been informed that their partner has learning disabilities, it is questionable whether they have given informed consent to the marriage.  This is also an issue if the spouse is unaware they are being married into the role of full-time carer.  The spouse may also be vulnerable to abuse from the family of the person with learning disabilities.

Did you know? If someone is forced into a marriage when they lack mental capacity to marry, then any sexual relations that take place within the forced marriage are likely to constitute rape. 

What about best interest decisions under the Mental Capacity Act?

Generally, where someone is found to lack capacity to make a particular decision at a particular time, others may be able to make decisions on behalf of that person, as long as those decisions are done in line with the Mental Capacity Act and made in the person’s best interests.  

But there are some decisions that can never be made on behalf of another person.  Decisions about whether or who to marry cannot be made on behalf of someone who lacks the mental capacity to consent to marriage.  

Signs to look out for:
Forced marriage can be difficult to spot because the signs are usually hidden. 
 •    Bruises and marks on a person’s body may be a sign that they are being forced into a marriage
•    Mostly, emotional pressure is used to force someone into a marriage, which can be harder to spot
•    Emotional distress, depression and self-harm are the most common behaviours shown by victims of forced marriage.  Often victims feel isolated and unable to talk to other people about what they are going through.
•    A person with learning disabilities or someone with permanent brain disorder may say they are getting married
•    A person with learning disabilities or other disabilities is removed from a day centre
•    A women or girl says she has been sexually abused.  Some families feel sexual abuse brings shame and that forcing her into a marriage restores ‘honour’ to the family
•    The person is lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender (LGBT).  Some families may force their relative into marriage to stop rumours about the person’s sexuality or gender identity.  They may also wrongly believe that the marriage will ‘cure’ the person 
•    Forced marriages are more common in some communities (Pakistani, Bangladeshi, Indian, Afghanistani, Somalian, Turkish, Iraqi, Sri Lankan and Iranian)
•    Someone going away on holiday suddenly for no reason could be a sign they are in danger – but there could be reasonable explanations for this too
•    Sudden engagement to a stranger
•    A family history of forced marriage, domestic violence, self-harm, family disputes or missing persons in the family

Why does forced marriage happen?

Forced marriage happens for many different reasons.  Some common ones are:
•    Sometimes parents of adults with learning disabilities don’t understand the law.  They wrongly think that they can arrange for their child with learning disabilities to get married to someone.  
•    Parent-carers of adults with learning disabilities may force their son/daughter into a marriage to ensure that when they are no longer able to care for their son/daughter, the spouse will take on that role
•    Often, forced marriages happen because families believe it is necessary for cultural, social or religious reasons.  This is a mistaken belief.  Forcing another person into marriage is never right.  Freely given consent in marriage is a founding principle in all major faiths.
•    Some families feel that a forced marriage is necessary to prevent an ‘unsuitable’ relationship and protect their family honour
•    Financial gain and ensuring land, property and wealth remain in the family can also be motivation for forced marriages
•    Sometimes a forced marriage is used to assist someone to get UK residency and citizenship.

Who is at risk of forced marriage?

There is no clear profile of a person at risk of forced marriage.  But some common risk factors are:

•    Girls/women aged between 16-25, especially if they have disclosed sexual abuse
•    Isolation is one of the biggest problems facing those trapped in, or under threat of, a forced marriage. The victim may feel there is nobody they can trust to keep it a secret from their family and have no one to speak to about their situation – the victim may not be able to speak English. These feelings of isolation are very similar to those experienced by victims of other forms of domestic abuse and child abuse. Leaving the marriage, accusing their parents of a crime or simply approaching statutory agencies may be seen as bringing shame and dishonour on their family.  It is rare that someone will disclose the fear of forced marriage. Consequently, they will often come to the attention of practitioners for behaviour that is consistent with distress.
•    A learning or physical disability or illness may also add to a young person’s or an adult’s vulnerability and may make it more difficult for them to report abuse or to leave an abusive situation. Their care needs may make them entirely dependent on their carers.  They may be eager to please their carers or not want to be a burden to their families so they may feel pressured into a marriage they would not otherwise accept.

What is the procedure where forced marriage is suspected?

•    First check whether the person at risk is over 18.  If they are under 18, refer the case to the Children’s Services Contact Team (CSCT).  
•    Check whether the adult being forced into the marriage is an Adult at Risk.  In other words, does the adult have care and support needs, whether or not those needs are currently being met? If the adult meets the definition of an Adult at Risk, then raise a safeguarding adults concern.
•    If the adult does not have care and support needs, signpost them to the Police or the Forced Marriage Unit.  Consider signposting them to floating support Domestic Violence services (Solace Women’s Aid).
•    If there is any doubt about whether someone can legally consent to marriage, do a mental capacity assessment.  The mental capacity assessment should include:
•    whether the person understands what a marriage is and the consequences of marriage
•    that the person can remember that they intend to get married
•    that the person can communicate their decision to get married
Seek legal advice if you are unsure whether someone has the mental capacity to enter into marriage.  In some cases, it may be necessary to take the case to the Court of Protection.
If the forced marriage is due to take place shortly:
•    See the person immediately in a secure and private place.  Ensure you see the person on their own – even if they attend with others.  
•    Hold a multi-agency core group meeting discussion with your line-manager to agree what steps to take next.
•    Contact the Forced Marriage Unit on 020 7008 0151. It leads on providing support to any individual who has been forced into a marriage.  Even if you are not sure that a forced marriage is taking place, you can get advice and support.  They have a dedicated caseworker who leads cases involving people with learning disabilities. 
•    Take care not to alert family members.  If the family is approached, they may deny that the person is being forced to marry, move or abduct the person, expedite any travel arrangements and bring forward the forced marriage.
•    Consider the need for immediate protection and placement away from the family.
•    Forced marriage is a crime. Sexual intercourse without consent within a forced marriage is rape.  Other criminal offences that may occur within forced marriage cases are: threatening behaviour, assault, kidnap, abduction, imprisonment and murder.   Seek advice from the Forced Marriage Unit on whether the police will need to be involved.  
•    The adult at risk/victim may be reluctant to have professionals (social services and/or police) involved because of family loyalties and ties.  If this is the case, do a risk assessment and mental capacity assessment and discuss this with your line manager before deciding on what steps to take.  Make sure you clearly record the reasons for any decision not to involve the police.
•    Consider whether to go ahead with a section 42 safeguarding enquiry.  
•    Seek legal advice on what court protection orders are available.  When asking a court to surrender the passports of a person to prevent them being taken abroad, make sure the court order includes all passports if they are a dual national.  
•    If the adult at risk does not have recourse to public funds because of their immigration status, seek advice from the Forced Marriage Unit.  The UK Visas and Immigration has developed a scheme to strengthen the way in domestic violence cases and forced marriage cases are considered through the Destitution Domestic Violence Concession.  
•    Seek the views of the adult at risk.  Arrange for interpreters – do not use family members to act as interpreters. 
•    Consider whether the adult at risk will need an advocate to ensure a personalised approach suited to their particular personal needs.  
•    Because Forced Marriage is generally a form of domestic abuse, consider whether an IDVA (Independent Domestic Violence Advocate) would be appropriate. 

If the forced marriage has already taken place

•    Forced marriages often result in the victim becoming trapped in a cycle of long-term abuse (financial abuse, sexual abuse, physical abuse). They are often socially isolated.  Consider the domestic violence risks carefully.  Use the SafeLives Dash Risk Checklist to help you evaluate the risks and whether you need to refer the case to MARAC. Refer to the Domestic Abuse page for further information. 
•    Consult the Forced Marriage Unit for advice on what legal options are available. If there are children in the household or the victim is pregnant, consider the risks and whether Children’s Services need to be informed.

General guidelines for all cases

•    Consider legal and other options, assess the risks and help the adult at risk develop a safety plan.  
•    Give the adult at risk information about their right to seek legal advice and representation.  
•    Refer the adult at risk to appropriate national support groups and counselling services.
•    Encourage the adult at risk to access advocacy to support them.
•    Remember: social services has a statutory duty to make Section 42 Safeguarding enquiries when there is an allegation of abuse or risk of harm to an adult at risk.  If the police are involved then they are likely to lead on any enquiry.  
•    Consider whether there are any other family members at risk of forced marriage.  Check Adult Social Services and Children’s Social Services records for past referrals or missing person’s reports of family members including siblings.


The Forced Marriage Unit has developed a free online course for professionals called Awareness of Forced Marriage. This will enable professionals to recognise the warning signs and ensure the appropriate action is taken to help protect and support adults at risk. Please get in touch with  if you have any problems registering for the e-learning. 

What to do if you are worried about someone?

If you are worried about someone who may be at risk of a forced marriage contact the Adult Social Care Access Team on 020 7527 2299 or complete the online safeguarding concern form.

Useful links

Sharan Project 
National Forced Marriage Campaign 
Forced Marriage Guidance
Multi-agency statutory guidance for dealing with forced marriage
What is forced marriage leaflet 
Forced marriage resource pack