In the UK last year, 1,196 cases of possible forced marriage were reported to the government’s Forced Marriage Unit (FMU).
And yet these figures might not even capture the full scale of the abuse, according to a new report that described forced marriage as a “hidden crime.”
The report, released by the Home Office and the Foreign Office on Thursday, revealed that nearly one-third of cases (30%, or 355 cases total) involved victims below the age of 18.
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Some 186 of these cases involved victims aged 15 or younger — and the youngest potential victim was just 2 years old, according to the report.
“Cases involving young children often involve the promise of a future marriage rather than an imminent marriage,” the report says. “In a small number of cases involving older victims, the forced marriage may have happened many years previously or where the victim has a learning disability.”
The FMU is a specialist service created in 2005 to lead on the government’s forced marriage policy, outreach, and casework, both in the UK and overseas. Since 2012, it has provided support on between 1,200 and 1,400 cases a year.
Forced marriage is when either one or both spouses don’t (or can’t) consent to the marriage, and violence, threats, or any other form of coercion is involved, including financial pressure.
It’s a crime in the UK, even if the actual marriage takes place overseas, and can carry a maximum prison sentence of seven years.
The report emphasised that forced marriage isn’t specific to one ethnicity or culture — and the FMU has worked on cases relating to more than 90 nations across Asia, the Middle East, Africa, Europe, and North America.
In 2017, these cases involved 65 “focus” countries — which is either where the marriage is due to take place, or the country where the spouse is living in, or both.
These are the countries that saw the highest number of cases, according to the FMU report:
- Pakistan, 439 cases (37%) — a drop of almost 8% from 2016
- Bangladesh, 129 cases (11%)
- Somalia, 91 cases (8%) — the highest year-on-year increase, of over 100%
- India, 82 cases (7%)
In 120 cases (10%) , the marriage was either set to take place, or had taken place, entirely within the UK. Of specific regions, London had the greatest number of cases — 29%, which represented an almost 10% increase from 2016.
It was followed by the West Midlands (14%), and Yorkshire and the Humber (13%).
In Birmingham this week, a mother has gone on trial accused of tricking her 17-year-old daughter into travelling to Pakistan to marry a man who was 16 years older. The daughter allegedly became betrothed to the man when she was just 13.
The woman, who denies all charges, allegedly told the girl she going on a family holiday. But it is alleged that once she was there, she was kept in the house and beaten, and her mother threatened to burn her passport if she refused.
If the prosecution is successful, it could lead to the UK’s first conviction for forced marriage.
Meanwhile, according to the FMU report, while the significant majority of cases involved women, in 21% of cases (256 cases) the victim was male.
Some 21 cases — 2% — involved victims who identified as LGBT, although the report highlights that “victims are not routinely asked to disclose their sexual orientation.”
The report doesn’t provide a breakdown of reported cases by religion, and emphasises that no major faith in the UK advocates forced marriage.
“It is also important to note that freely given consent is a prerequisite of Christian, Jewish, Hindu, Muslim, and Sikh marriages,” it says.
The number of reports made to the FMU was down by 19% in 2017 compared to the previous year. However, this “does not represent a decrease in prevalence of forced marriage in the UK.”
The FMU may receive information from either a person who’s at risk, a friend or a relative, or from professionals responsible for safeguarding vulnerable people. But around 80% of calls come from professionals and other third parties, rather than from the victim themselves.
“The fact self-reports represent a smaller proportion of calls may reflect the hidden nature of forced marriage and that victims may fear reprisals from their family if they come forward,” the report says.
Meanwhile, schools are being urged to take action to stop at-risk girls being taken abroad to be married during the summer holidays.
“In Britain today there are children in our classrooms who are either engaged…at risk of forced marriage, or have been forced into marriage,” Jasvinder Sanghera, founder of the anti-forced marriage charity Karma Nirvana, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
“Families will use the summer holidays as an opportunity to take their kids abroad to enter into marriages or engagements — so what are we doing to ensure schools are engaged?” she said.
“There is still an attitude out there that [schools] don’t see it as a safeguarding issue, but as a cultural issue,” Sanghera added. “They don’t…want to offend parents.”
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The FMU’s helpline is available from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., Monday to Friday, and can be reached on 020 7008 0151, or overseas on +44 (0)20 7008 0151. An out-of-hours service is provided by the FCO’s Global Response Centre, which is based in the UK, which can be reached on 020 7008 1500. The helpline can also be contacted on firstname.lastname@example.org.