17.3 Forced Marriage of a child
Last reviewed in July 2023
Next review July 2025
The Right to Choose: Multi-agency statutory guidance for dealing with forced marriage and Multi-agency practice guidelines: Handling cases of forced marriage - HM Government Multi-agency practice guidelines: Handling cases of Forced Marriage (publishing.service.gov.uk)
See also the Multi Agency Practice Guidance: Handling Cases of Forced Marriages(published by the Forced Marriage unit in June 2009).
Please also see Forced Marriage Guidance for Local Authorities on Applying for Protection Orders, published by the Ministry of Justice in November 2009.
- This Home Office Forced marriage resource pack - GOV.UK (www.gov.uk) highlights examples of best practice and helps ensure that effective support is available to victims of forced marriage.
Further advice can be sought from the Forced Marriage Unit in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, which provides confidential information and assistance to potential victims and concerned professionals - see National Contact Details.
- Definition and Legal Position(Jump to)
- Recognition(Jump to)
- Response(Jump to)
- Assessment(Jump to)
- Intervention(Jump to)
Definition and Legal Position
A forced marriage is where one or both people do not (or in cases of people with learning disabilities or reduced capacity, cannot) consent to the marriage as they are pressurised, or abuse is used, to force them to do so. It is recognised in the UK as a form of domestic or child abuse and a serious abuse of human rights.
The pressure put on people to marry against their will may be:
A 'forced' marriage, as distinct from a consensual 'arranged' one, is a marriage conducted without the full consent of both parties and where duress is a factor. Duress cannot be justified on religious or cultural grounds.
Forced marriages of children may involve non-consensual and/or underage sex, emotional and possibly physical abuse and should be regarded as a child protection issue and referred to Children's Social Care. If the concerns relate to a person aged 18 or over, a referral should be made under the Adult Safeguarding Procedures.
Although primarily an issue of violence against girls and young women, forced marriage also effects men and boys. Approximately 20% of calls to the Forced Marriage Unit relate to male victims. Men may be particularly reluctant to seek help because they feel embarrassed or fear they won’t be believed. Men with disabilities are particularly vulnerable to forced marriage, as parents may decide their son needs a wife to care for him.
Anyone threatened with forced marriage or forced to marry against their will can apply for a Forced Marriage Protection Order (FMPO). Such an order can be granted to prevent a marriage occurring or, where a forced marriage has already taken place, to offer protective measures. Orders may contain prohibitions (e.g. to stop someone from being taken abroad), restrictions (e.g. to hand over all passports and birth certificates and not to apply for a new passport), requirements (e.g. to reveal the whereabouts of a person or to enable a person to return to the UK within a given timescale) or such other terms as the court thinks appropriate to stop or change the conduct of those who would force the victim into marriage.
Third parties such as relatives, friends, voluntary workers and police officers can apply for a protection order with the leave of the Court. Since 1 November 2009, local authorities can apply for a protection order for a vulnerable adult or child without the leave of the court.
For further advice and information about how to make such an application, see the Forced Marriage Guidance for Local Authorities on Applying for Protection Orders, published by the Ministry of Justice in November 2009.
The Anti-social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Act 2014, made it a criminal offence, with effect from 16 June 2014, to force someone to marry. This includes:
Forcing someone to marry can result in a sentence of up to 7 years in prison.
The Marriage and Civil Partnership (Minimum Age) Act 2022 raised the age of marriage and civil partnership to 18 in England and Wales on the 26 February 2023. The new law expands the criminal offence of forced marriage to automatically recognise children, on account of their age, as victims of forced marriage. Children will no longer be required to prove they were coerced or pressured to marry.
The offence captures all child marriages, including those that are not religious and/or not legally recognised. This means that 16 to 17-year-olds will no longer be able to marry or enter a civil partnership under any circumstances. Previously, forced marriage was only an offence if the person used a type of coercion to cause someone to marry, or if the person lacked capacity to consent to marry under the Mental Capacity Act. The forced marriage offence will continue to include ceremonies of marriage which are not legally binding, for example in community or traditional settings.
Whilst the majority of cases encountered in the UK involve South Asian families, partly reflecting the composition of the UK population, there have been cases involving families from East Asia, the Middle East, Europe and Africa. Some forced marriages take place in the UK with no overseas element, whilst others involve a partner coming from overseas or a British citizen being sent abroad.
Victims of existing or prospective forced marriages may be fearful of discussing their worries with friends and teachers, but may come to the attention of professionals for various behaviours or circumstances consistent with distress. These indicators are not intended to be an exhaustive list.
There have been occasions when women have presented with less common warning signs such as cut or shaved hair as a form of punishment for disobeying or "dishonouring" her family
There have also been reports of women presenting in the NHS with symptoms associated with poisoning.
This information may come from the following:
There is evidence to suggest that there may be factors that increase the risk of being forced into marriage, including bereavement within the family. Occasionally, when a parent dies, especially the father, the remaining parent and/or wider family members may feel there is more of an urgency to ensure that the children are married.
A similar situation may arise within single parent households or when a step-parent moves in with the family. If an older child (particularly a daughter) refuses to marry then younger female siblings may be forced to marry in order to protect the ‘family honour’ or to fulfil the original contract. This is also known as becoming the ‘replacement bride or groom’.
Women and girls may also face an increased risk of forced marriage if they have disclosed sexual abuse. Her family may feel that this has brought shame on her and that ensuring she is married may be the only way to restore ‘honour’ to the family. They may also feel that marriage will put a stop to the abuse.
A person may be at a greater risk if they identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender (LGBTQ+), as their wider family may feel that by forcing the individual into marriage, their sexuality or gender identity will not be questioned. Parents may also do this out of a mistaken belief that this will “cure” their son or daughter of what they perceive to be abnormal sexual practices.
Forced marriage may also become apparent when other family issues are addressed, such as domestic violence, self-harm, child abuse or neglect, family / young person conflict, a child not attending school or a missing child / runaway.
Staff should not make assumptions that a child is at risk solely on the basis of an imminent extended family holiday. All efforts should be made to establish the full facts from the child at the earliest opportunity, without making assumptions. Professionals should discuss cases of forced marriage with, and seek advice from, a designated professional or another statutory agency.
The child must be provided with the opportunity to speak on their own, in a private place. The child may face Significant Harm if their family learn that they have sought help or advice and mediation should not be attempted.
The needs of victims of forced marriage vary. They may need help to avoid a threatened forced marriage or dealing with the consequences of a forced marriage that has already taken place.
Staff should seek consultation and advice from the designated / named professional and the Forced Marriage Unit Forced Marriage Unit on 020 7008 0151 or email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Where there is information of an existing or prospective forced marriage of a child aged less than 18 years, child protection issues should be addressed by a referral to Children's Social Care- Making a Referral, without prior discussion with the family or community.
All referrals to Children's Social Care involving suspected forced marriage (either actual or prospective) can involve complex and sensitive issues and social workers should inform their first line manager and consult the senior child protection manager.
Where there are concerns for an individual under 18 (or for their children) a Strategy Discussion with the Safeguarding Investigations Unit and other relevant agencies must be initiated to decide whether the young person is suffering, or at risk of suffering Significant Harm and if a Section 47 Enquiry should be initiated.
Allegations received by the police should be dealt with by the Safeguarding Investigations Unit.
Information to obtain in these cases includes:
In all cases efforts should be made to see the child immediately, on their own, in a secure and private place, even if the child is with others or the police have been called to the home.
The social worker and / or police officer should not attempt to act as a mediator with the family or immediately encourage mediation, reconciliation, arbitration or family counselling.
Information to be obtained in discussion with the child includes:
The child should be reassured of confidentiality and the allegations must not be shared with the child's family, friends or influential people within the community without the express consent of the child (and even then with due consideration of the implications to their safety).
‘A dilemma may occur because someone facing a forced marriage may be concerned that if confidentiality is breached and their family finds out that they have sought help they will be in danger. On the other hand, those facing forced marriage are often already facing significant danger because of domestic or ‘honour’-based abuse, rape, imprisonment and/or other acts of threatening or menacing behaviour. Therefore, in order to protect them, it may be necessary to share information with other agencies such as the police.’
NB. Cases involving suspicions of a forced marriage are NOT suitable for a Family Group Conference to be arranged because of the risk of physical danger and emotional manipulation which the young person may experience as a result.
If the individual is going overseas and there is concern that they may be forced into a marriage the following information is required:
To make sensitive and informed professional judgements about the child's needs, it is important that professionals are sensitive to differing family patterns and lifestyles and to child-rearing patterns that vary across different racial, ethnic and cultural groups. At the same time they must be clear that child abuse cannot be condoned for religious or cultural reasons.
Where there is information of an existing or prospective forced marriage of a child aged less than 18 years, child protection issues should be addressed by a referral to Children's Social Care - Making a Referral , without prior discussion with the family or community.
If the child does not want Children's Social Care to intervene, the social worker will have to consider whether the child's safety (or that of others) requires that further action be taken.
Where a child spouse has come to the UK from overseas without their family and states they were forced into marriage and do not want to remain with their spouse, Children's Social Care should consider the young person in the same manner as an unaccompanied asylum-seeking minor, and should accommodate them, unless the needs assessment reveals an alternative response would be more appropriate.
If the risk of forced marriage is immediate, it may be necessary to take emergency action to protect the child e.g. Police Protection or Emergency Protection Orders
If there is an overseas dimension Children's Social Care and police should liaise closely with the Forced Marriage Unit, Forced Marriage Unit on 020 7008 0151 or email: email@example.com