Forced marriage is defined by the Forced Marriage Unit (FMU) as “where one or both people do not (or in cases of people with learning disabilities, cannot) consent to the marriage and duress or abuse is used” and it can be difficult for practitioners to recognise when an adult with learning disabilities is at risk.
Duress, be it physical or emotional, is a common feature of forced marriage cases, including those involving people with learning disabilities. However, it does not feature in all forced marriages of people with learning disabilities as they may often appear happy or say that the marriage is what they want. Some people with learning disabilities agree to be married because they want to please their family, do what their siblings have done or because they don’t understand the implications.
Forced marriage is not to be confused with an arranged marriage, as in the latter the family of both spouses take a leading role in arranging the marriage, but the decision to accept the arrangement or not remains with the prospective spouses who both have the capacity to consent to marry. The giving of consent by both parties is a legal requirement though the absence of consent renders a marriage voidable rather than void: a voidable marriage will be regarded as valid until a court decree annuls it.
Statistics from the FMU show that most forced marriages take place overseas, which may mean the prospective spouses have never met and, in some cases, the person without a learning disability may not know they are marrying someone with a learning disability until the ceremony itself. The FMU statistics also show that although almost 80% of all forced marriage cases reported relate to women, when it comes to people with learning disabilities, numbers between genders are more equal with cases involving men as victims reaching 52.8% in 2017.
Forcing someone to marry became a criminal offence under the Anti-social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Act 2014. Under the act, it is also an offence for a person to practice any form of deception with the intention of causing another person to leave the UK intending them to be subject to a forced marriage abroad. So, for example, telling someone a relative is very ill and needs to be visited. Importantly, the act makes clear that the offence of forced marriage can be committed in cases where people lack capacity to consent to marriage.
Before the 2014 act was implemented, forced marriage specifically was dealt with through forced marriage protection orders (FMPOs), which are still in place. These are used to prevent a forced marriage from occurring (for example, by lodging the victim’s passport with the courts to prevent them leaving the country) and to protect people who have already been forced to marry (for example, by ordering that the victim’s whereabouts are revealed). Making a FMPO does not mean a criminal offence has been committed, but it contains conditions that are legally binding, so breaching it is a criminal offence punishable by up to five years’ imprisonment. Practitioners should consider applying for an FMPO if they consider a person to be at risk of forced marriage or where one has taken place.
Why are people with learning disabilities forced to marry?
Forced marriage of people with learning disabilities often shares some of the same motives as forced marriage generally, (for example, controlling behaviour that is perceived as too ‘westernised’ or obtaining a visa). Yet research shows that the most common reason family members seek a spouse for someone with a learning disability is to secure a carer to look after them in the long term, particularly when parents are ageing and finding it more difficult to provide care themselves. Often, families may see nothing wrong in their actions and believe it is the right or only option. The family may even be open about their intentions with practitioners as they may be unaware that arranging a marriage for a family member with learning disabilities could be viewed as a forced marriage and therefore against the law.
The consequences for people with learning disabilities entering into a forced marriage can be the same as for those without a learning disability but there can also be many additional consequences too and this can also affect the non-disabled spouse. For some victims of forced marriage, leaving their marriage, family and community may be their only option and many will require support to do this. People with learning disabilities may require greater levels of support to do this as they may have no experience outside the family and no financial, physical, social or emotional support. Those who do leave often live in fear of their own families, who may go to considerable lengths to find them and ensure their return. To help ensure someone is protected in this situation, practitioners should work closely with others involved to ensure a clear plan of support.
Forced marriage of people with learning disabilities is a very complex issue which may need a multi-agency response. Evidence shows that, on the whole, potential warning signs for forced marriage of people with learning disabilities are reported by a third party rather than by the victim themselves. It is therefore crucial that practitioners and agencies are able to recognise and understand what potential warning signs could be and know how to respond to them accordingly in their policies and practice.