The illegality of Forced Marriages in the UK and their Distinction from Arranged Marriages

In this article, Dr Bernard Andonian highlights the problems surrounding forced marriages and distinguishes them from customary arranged marriages.

The Legal Age of Marriage in the UK

16-17-year-olds require parental or guardian consent, otherwise, the legal age for marriage without such consent is 18 when a person is considered to have reached adulthood.

What are Forced Marriages?

Forced marriage is when a person faces physical, emotional or psychological pressure to marry so that he/ she is made to feel like they are bringing shame on the family if they act against the orders of their parents for example.

Forced Marriages are Illegal

The Anti-Social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Act 2014 makes forcing someone to marry (including abroad), a criminal offence. The law came into effect in June 2014 in England and Wales and in October 2014 in Scotland. It is also a criminal offence in Northern Ireland. The act of taking someone overseas to force them to marry whether or not the forced marriage takes place is also illegal, as is marrying someone who lacks the mental capacity to consent to the marriage whether they are pressurised or not.

Some families also force their gay/ lesbian children who are afraid of going against family orders into heterosexual marriages against their will and this is another form of forced marriage.

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

What Countries Have the Most Child Marriages?

Those who are forced into a marriage, are predominantly children marry much older partners. The countries with the highest observed rates of child marriages below the age of 18 are Niger, Chad, Mali, Bangladesh, Guinea, Pakistan, India, Somalia, Afghanistan Romania and the Central African Republic. These countries have been identified as the largest numbers of cases although the Forced Marriage Unit has also identified more than 110 countries since 2011.

How do Forced Marriages occur?

Such marriages can happen in secret and can also be planned by parents taking British children abroad on the pretext of a holiday, or through the intervention of family or religious leaders, and may involve physical, sexual or emotional abuse. They are in fact another form of modern slavery.

Signs of Forced Marriages

Often children are withdrawn, no longer associate with friends, and when going abroad on pretext of a holiday, for example, have usually a one-way ticket, as in many cases child brides will not return until they have married and are pregnant, and in some cases, may not return at all, finding themselves living in a country they know little or nothing about, with children that they had not planned for, and in an impossible situation, unable to return to the UK as British citizens.

Officers are now being stationed at major airports across Britain in a bid to prevent victims been taken out of the country. They can enquire of families queueing up to leave as to the purpose of their visit if they consider there are any suspicious circumstances.

What are the Protection Orders that can be Obtained?

The court can be requested to issue Forced Marriage Protection Orders.  Each order is unique and is designed to protect the individual according to their personal circumstances. For example, the court may order someone to hand over their passport or reveal the child’s whereabouts. In an emergency, an order can be made to protect the child immediately.

Disobeying a forced marriage protection order can result in a sentence of imprisonment of up to 5 years.

Those who fear being forced into a marriage and be taken abroad can contact the police, or the Forced Marriage Unit (FMU) which is a joint Foreign & Commonwealth and Home Office unit which leads on the government’s forced marriage policy, and operates both inside the UK where support is provided to an individual, and overseas where consular assistance is provided to British nationals including dual nationals. It operates a public helpline to provide advice and support to victims of forced marriage as well as to professionals dealing with cases. The assistance provided ranges from safety advice, through to helping a forced marriage victim prevent their unwanted spouses moving to the UK (reluctant spouse’s cases) by reporting to the consular office or airport staff when returning to the UK for example, that their marriage is not genuine, and in extreme circumstances the unit will assist with rescues of victims against their will overseas. The unit undertakes an extensive training and awareness program targeting both professionals and potential victims and carries out a range of work to raise awareness.

Cases Involving Forced Marriages

On 23 May 2018 a jury at Birmingham Crown Court convicted a mother of forcing her teenage daughter to travel to Pakistan to marry a man twice her age in the first prosecution of its kind in the UK.

The teenager who was previously raped by the man when she was just 13 years old, reportedly cried while the marriage ceremony took place. Her mother had convinced her to travel to Pakistan under the guise of a family holiday and bribed her with the promise of a mobile phone.

On arrival in Pakistan, the mother revealed her plan to have her married to one of her older male relatives.

When the now 19-year-old daughter protested, her mother assaulted her and threatened to burn her passport if she did not cooperate.

Recently on 16 July 2019, a British woman escaped a forced marriage after raising the alarm with UK immigration Border Force officers at Heathrow airport as she returned from honeymoon. The woman is believed to have her married in Britain under pressure from her family. She was bold enough though to raise the alarm directly to the immigration authorities at Heathrow airport. She told passport control offices about her plight as she returned to the UK alone and at the moment is receiving support and protection.

Interestingly enough, her husband who the UK Border Force new would be travelling later and would be arriving at Heathrow was met as he returned to Britain and also has been offered safeguarding assistance because of concerns that he could also have been forced into the marriage.

The woman’s rescue was revealed as Metropolitan Officers and Border Force immigration officers carried out a day of action at Heathrow on 16 July 2019 in the latest phase of Operation Limelight which seeks to prevent and detect forced marriages, female genital mutilation, honour-based violence and other practices such as breast ironing, by targeting flights to high prevalence countries such as those already mentioned and Africa and the Gulf. Those leaving the UK are warned at the airport that such practices are illegal and about the damaging health and psychological consequences for victims. Flights returning to the UK are also monitored for signs of potential victims with the flight crew asked to report any concerns ahead of landing.

Official figures show the number of suspected forced marriage victims rose by 47% last year to a record high of 1764. Amanda Reid the current Border Force national lead on safeguarding victims of modern slavery, has said that the increasing willingness of victims and others to report cases has been a key reason for this rise. She said that women at Heathrow felt able to come and talk to them as they are in uniform, and victims felt able to make an approach and felt secure to do so. This is the first time apparently that somebody of their own volition has approached the UK Border Agency returning to the UK from honeymoon, and reporting the forced marriage.

Arranged Marriages

An arranged marriage is not the same as a forced marriage. In an arranged marriage the family takes the lead to find a marriage partner for their son or daughter and both parties are free to choose whether they enter into the marriage. An arranged marriage has the consent of both parties. It is recognised under English law. A forced marriage does not give the right to refuse and tantamount to slavery. An arranged marriage does give that right. So, it is essential not to conflate the two. Doing so is harmful because it promotes an image of the countries and cultures who do practice arranged marriages as inherently barbaric and cruel which is not the case. For an arranged marriage the parties will often marry before having a long-term relationship. Parents respect the wishes of their son/ daughter.  Traditionally there is little input from the children, as the idea is that parents know their children and can use their wisdom to know what will bring their child happiness. Happiness is the ultimate goal of an arranged marriage. Parents consider things like family reputation, wealth, career prospects, appearance, values religion and medical history.

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