Forced marriage in the UK

The Government defines forced marriage as where one or both of the parties in a marriage is married without his or her consent. Individuals may face physical pressure to marry (eg threats, physical violence or sexual violence) or emotional and psychological pressure (eg they may be made to feel like they’re bringing shame on their family)

During her time as Home Secretary, the Rt Hon Theresa May MP made forced marriage a significant focus. Most forced marriages occur overseas (particularly in South Asia) where an individual is transported to a foreign country to marry and returned to the UK after the process is complete. Until 2014, the civil remedy of Forced marriage protection orders had been the main instrument used to prevent this. It allowed the courts to, for instance, demand someone's passport if they believed they were at risk of forced marriage.

In 2014, Theresa May introduced legislation which made it a criminal offence to force someone else to marry. The new law criminalises people who: take another individual overseas to force them to marry; or, who force someone to marry who lacks the mental capacity to consent to it. Last year, in one of her final acts as Home Secretary, the now Prime Minister introduced new rules to provide lifelong anonymity for victims of forced marriage, protecting them from. It is hoped that this will increase the number of prosecutions for forced marriage

Despite these positive policies, figures collected by government suggest that the number of potential victims of forced marriage remains high and is only declining slightly.

Measuring forced marriage

The largest source of data on forced marriage is provided by the Forced Marriage Unit. The Forced Marriage Unit (FMU) is a joint Foreign and Commonwealth Office and Home Office unit was which was set up in 2005 to lead on the Government’s forced marriage policy, outreach and casework. It operates both inside the UK, where support is provided to any individual who resides in the UK, and overseas, where consular assistance is provided to British nationals, including dual nationals.

The FMU operates a public helpline to provide advice and support to potential victims of forced marriage as well as to professionals dealing with cases. The assistance provided ranges from simple safety advice, through to aiding a victim to prevent their unwanted spouse moving to the UK (so-called ‘reluctant sponsor’ cases), and, in extreme cases, to rescue victims held against their will overseas.

In 2015 (the last year for which figures are available), the FMU gave advice or support relating to a possible forced marriage in 1,220 cases via its public helpline and email inbox. This represents a fall of 3% (47 cases) compared with the previous year. This fall continues a general downward trend which has been observed since 2009.

Almost 80% of cases handled by the FMU were reported by professionals, colleagues, friends or family, while only 20% are reported by potential victims themselves. Some have argued that the small number of self-referrals suggest that the FMU statistics may be underreporting the scale of forced marriage as victims are too afraid of repercussions to come forward.

Countries at risk

In 2015, the FMU handled cases which involved 67 ‘focus’ countries. Focus countries are countries which a victim is at risk of being taken to, or has already been taken to, in connection with a forced marriage. Five countries made up 62% of cases handled by the FMU. By far the most predominant focus country connected to forced marriage was Pakistan. In 2015, Pakistan was a focus country for 44% of cases handled by the FMU.

The FMU statistics show there is a clear geographical component to forced marriage. The top four countries connected to forced marriage all share a border with each other (Pakistan, India, Bangladesh and Pakistan). The FMU statistics mirror evidence which shows that women who live in South Asia are frequently forced into marriage.

According to UNICEF, 48% of women in South Asia are forced to marry before they are 18. The tradition of forced marriage in South Asian society is thought to have begun within the Indian subcontinent when the historical Vedic religion was eclipsed by Hinduism. Hinduism established a culture of patriarchy and rules based on caste. ‘Caste’ is a complex concept which refers to individuals who are differentiated according to different functions of life, such as occupation. Caste is hereditary. In order to maintain their caste, South Asian families frequently use forced marriage to ensure their children marry someone of a similar social status.

Outside of South Asia, the fifth highest volume country for cases handled by the FMU is Somalia. There appear to be two drivers of Somalia’s high volume of cases. First, its cultural norms promote forced marriage and misogyny. Nearly half of Somali girls are married by the time they turn 18 while 98% of Somali girls have suffered female genital mutilation. Second, a significant Somali community has emigrated to the UK. An official 2010 estimate indicated that 108,000 Somalis live in the UK.


The FMU statistics also provide interesting data on the profile of potential victims of forced marriage. In 2015, 980 cases (80%) involved women while 240 (20%) involved men. Some evidence suggests that many male victims of forced marriage are forced into marriage because their families know or suspect they are gay.

In 21% of cases handled by the FMU, the age of the potential victim is unknown. Of the remaining proportion, 62% of cases involved individuals aged under 25. The most common age of potential victims is between 18 and 21. The FMU gave advice or provided support in 174 cases which involved children aged 15 or under, accounting for 14% of all potential victims. A minority of cases involved older individuals. In 2015, 8% of cases concerned individuals aged over 30 while 2% of potential victims were older than 41.

Potential victims of forced marriage reside mostly in London, the West Midlands, the North West and the South East. Very few potential victims live in Wales, Northern Ireland or Scotland. These figures closely follow the number of migrants in UK regions.

In 2015, 141 cases (12%) involved individuals who had either a physical or learning disability. Notably, these cases predominantly concerned men (62%). Some academics have speculated that these figures may simply be the “tip of the iceberg” with many individuals with learning difficulties and disabilities who are forced into marriage unable to seek assistance.


Forced marriage remains a significant problem for British citizens and residents. Government figures suggest that there has been a general downward trend in the number of potential victims since 2009. Forced marriages are mostly connected to South Asian countries and involve young women. However, a notable proportion of men, particularly disabled men, are potential victims. Human Rights Watch is currently campaigning to end forced marriage worldwide. However, this is likely to require coordinated action from a number of countries, particularly those in South Asia. Unfortunately, cultural norms in these countries mean that forced marriage, even for children, remains permissible and, in some cases, encouraged.

James Dobson is a researcher at Bright Blue