Mental capacity and forced marriage: a social worker’s story

In the wake of new guidance for social workers on handling cases of forced marriage, an anonymous social worker reflects on her experience of dealing with this complex issue.

Picture credit: Monkey Business/Rex Features

I’ve recently handled my first case since qualifying as a social worker that has involved the issue of forced marriage and it has raised a number of issues for my practice.

The case involves a young woman in her twenties who I work with. She has complex learning disabilities and mental health issues. Her second language is English. Our local authority has welfare guardianship for her after issues of neglect were identified.

The woman’s case involves a lot of complex issues, one of which is that her mother has been pushing the idea that the family should arrange for the girl to get married. The issue has been raised enough to prompt concerns among colleagues that the girl could be abducted to get married abroad.

The woman is the only one of her sisters not to have married and the family seem to feel they are letting her down by not marrying her. But they don’t seem to grasp the level of her disability and mental health difficulties. They also don’t appear to understand our statutory obligations to her.

Professionally, I feel that this woman is far, far from having the capacity to consent to marriage or a sexual relationship. Within the boundaries of our legal system it would be unlawful. Personally, I find myself angry at the idea that the woman’s family might even consider trying to arrange a marriage for her.

The case has been hard and there has been plenty for me to reflect on but I have to maintain my professional role and work with the family and understand their cultural beliefs, while disagreeing quite drastically with their views on their daughter’s capacity to marry.

But the case has opened my eyes to the need for social work support and training on this issue. When I qualified years ago we were well trained on issues of discrimination but we had nothing specific to forced marriage or issues of capacity linked to it.

I think this is something that social workers today need to cover in their training – they need the opportunity to reflect on their own thoughts, beliefs and value base about this issue – as the chances are that, like me, it will come up in their caseloads one day.

Resources for social workers on forced marriage:


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