The U.S. Department of State's highest priority overseas is the protection and welfare of U.S. citizens. It considers the issue of forced marriage to be a violation of basic human rights and a form of child abuse. Often, victims are subjected to non-consensual sex, physical and emotional abuse, isolation, and threats of violence. International law and conventions also support an individual's right to self-determination, minimum marriage ages, and the rejection of abuse of women and honor-based violence.
Arranged marriages are a long-standing tradition in many cultures and countries. The Department respects this tradition, and makes a very clear distinction between a forced and an arranged marriage. In arranged marriages, the families of both spouses take a leading role in the arrangement but the choice whether to consent remains with the individuals. In a forced marriage, at least one party does not consent to the marriage, and some element of duress or coercion is generally present.
In England, Wales, and Northern Ireland,marriage laws are based on English common law. Marriage laws dictate that the minimum age for consent is 16; in addition, persons under the age of 18 must have parental consent. The Matrimonial Causes Act 1973 stipulates that a marriage can be annulled within three years if there is not the valid consent of both parties involved. In Scotland, marriage laws differ slightly. Although the age of consent is also 16, there is no requirement for parental consent. More recent legislation includes the Forced Marriage Act 2007, which allows family courts to issue Forced Marriage Protection Orders. The orders prevent these unions from occurring, as well as helping victims who are already in a forced marriage. Violating or ignoring an order may be punishable by jail time.
Most of the cases of forced marriage in the United Kingdom occur among South Asian families. However, there also have been cases involving Africans, East Asians, Middle Easterners, and Europeans. While young women comprise the majority of victims—sometimes as young as 13—young men may also be forced into marriage. Forced marriages in the United Kingdom occur primarily because the victim’s family wants him/her to marry into a certain community. The victims usually have had little or no prior interaction with their future spouses before marriage. If a victim does comply with the marriage, it is often a result of extreme emotional pressure and blackmail. In some cases, the victims are taken abroad to be married without their knowledge or consent, in an attempt to isolate them from any support systems they may have in the United Kingdom.
If a victim does not consent to the marriage, he/she faces serious consequences. Many will be made to quit school and remain at home. They are often subject to violence and other controlling behavior. In severe cases, victims have been murdered. These murders are called "honor killings." Although these murders are not as common in the United Kingdom as in Middle Eastern or Asian countries, British authorities have estimated about 12 occur every year.
The UK Home Office has established a Forced Marriage Unit to provide assistance to victims, or friends of victims, who have been forced into marriage or are at risk of being forced. This office works both domestically and abroad with victims who have been forced into marriage against their will. In addition, the UK Border Agency has recently changed its requirements for marriage visas, to try to prevent forced marriages from occurring. This new requirement raised the minimum age for a marriage visa from 18 to 21. According to the UK Border Agency, the aim of this change was to protect young people from being forced into relationships they do not want, at a time in their lives when they could be establishing a degree of independence as adults through further education or through work.
Following on from this, a Code of Practice was published in March 2009 setting out how the UK authorities will deal with an application for a marriage visa or permission to remain in the United Kingdom as a husband or wife if someone is identified as vulnerable to a forced marriage. The Code provides guidance to visa officers and casework teams in the United Kingdom on how to handle such cases.
Forced Marriage Protection Orders are also helpful in regards to exit control. The orders can force a family to hand over their passports or to restrict travel abroad if they are suspected of trying to take a child out of the United Kingdom for the purpose of forced marriage.
If you are facing this situation, or know someone who is, contact the local authorities and the nearest U.S. Embassy or Consulate. Please see the Country Specific Information for the United Kingdom for locations and contact information. You can also call the UK Home Office Forced Marriage Unit’s emergency number: 020-7008-0151, or 011-44-20-7008-0151 from the United States.