British councils have had to create policies to tackle the rise in the number of people with learning disabilities entering forced marriages. They issue guidance for social workers and other staff to raise awareness and spot potential victims. It is unlawful in the UK to give permission for a marriage on behalf of a person if they cannot consent themselves. The Forced Marriage Unit says it is dealing with a “growing number of referrals” involving people with learning disabilities and has produced a booklet to help professionals prevent forced marriages.
A forced marriage in UK law, is one to which the individual has not consented. For people with learning disabilities this may mean that they do not have the capacity to consent to marriage or that they do not understand the nature of the marriage contract. It does not necessarily imply force, coercion or intimidation. In fact the person with learning disabilities may be happy to comply, and enjoy the idea of a wedding or of being married, although they do not fully realise what they are agreeing to, or they may not understand what is happening at all.
The majority of cases of forced marriage reported to date in the UK involve South Asian families; this is partly a reflection of the fact that there is a large, established, South Asian population in the UK. However, it is clear that forced marriage is not solely a South Asian issue and there have been cases involving East Asian, Middle Eastern, European, Gypsy and Traveller and African communities. Some forced marriages take place in the UK, while others involve a partner coming from overseas or a British national being sent abroad.
In 2009 nearly 1,700 incidents of suspected forced marriage were reported to the Forced Marriage Unit. Research also indicates that the forced marriage of children and adults with learning disabilities is likely to be vastly underreported and can differ from the way in which forced marriage presents generally. It is therefore difficult to obtain any figures for the number of people with learning disabilities who are forced to marry.
Many families are not aware that organising marriages for their relative with learning disabilities could potentially be forcing them into marriage. Parents who force their children to marry often justify their action as protecting their children, building stronger family ties and preserving traditions. They often do not see anything wrong in their actions and indeed when this involves a person with a learning disability they often believe it is the right, or only, option and therefore may be open about their intentions. In addition to the motives for forcing people to marry generally, there are other factors which may make someone with a learning disability more vulnerable. For example a lack of suitable day centres and day time activities may isolate a potential victim. Some key motives for forcing people with learning disabilities to marry include:
• Obtaining a carer for the person with a learning disability.
• Obtaining physical assistance for ageing parents.
• Obtaining financial security for the person with a learning disability.
• Believing the marriage will somehow “cure” the disability.
• A belief that marriage is a “rite of passage” for all young people.
• Mistrust of the “system”, mistrust of external (e.g. social care/health) carers.
• A fear that younger siblings may be seen as undesirable if older sons or daughter are not already married.
• The marriage being seen as the only option or the right option (or both) – no alternative.
Anecdotal evidence also suggests that young women with learning disabilities can be married to young men who have in some way “disgraced” family honour and are now regarded as “unsuitable” to enter any other marriage. Marriage with a woman with a learning disability may be seen by the family as their only option. Some prospective brides and grooms who come from abroad may not realise that they are marrying a person with a learning disability and that they may be expected to become a carer.
A booklet for people with learning disabilities has been produced by Respond with funding from the Forced Marriage Unit.