Marriage guidance

It has been a year since guidelines for social services staff on
how best to tackle forced marriage were published. The guidance
from the Association of Directors of Social Services and the
government’s Forced Marriage Unit (FMU) explains how to deal with
situations including:

  • Distinguishing between forced and arranged marriages.
  • Fears of a young person about to be forced into marriage either
    in the UK or overseas.
  • A young person who has been taken overseas and is in imminent
    danger of forced marriage.
  • A young person who has already been forced into marriage and is
    now back in the UK.

Practical advice for social workers includes do’s and don’ts in
case-handling and outlining legal measures that help tackle forced
marriages. The guidelines also provide contacts and further sources
of support. They warn social workers against all forms of
mediation, reconciliation and family counselling as a response to
forced marriage as the risks involved in mediation have proved to
be too high: some young people have been murdered by their families
during mediation in “honour killings”.

The FMU based at the Foreign Office is the government’s
“one-stop shop” on forced marriage issues. It provides confidential
advice, information and leaflets for social workers and the
statutory sector. It also deals with about 250 cases a year of
which 15 per cent are men being forced into marriage. These are
often young men whose parents are worried about their sexual
orientation, or think they are going off the rails and need a “good
woman” to help them settle down.

But many more cases come to the attention of the police, social
services, health, education and voluntary organisations. The FMU
also carries out some 75 overseas rescues each year to bring
British nationals back to safety in the UK. If it is given the
right information early enough it may be able to prevent the young
person being taken abroad at all.

As forced marriage disproportionately affects young people from
ethnic minorities, the public sector must be suitably trained and
resourced to respond appropriately if it is to promote equality of
opportunity under the Race Relations (Amendment) Act 2000.

But stereotypes should be shattered. Some people believe that
forced marriage is solely a south Asian or Muslim problem. While
there have been cases from the south Asian community, there have
also been others involving families from Africa, the Middle East
and Europe.

Statutory authorities should feel confident in taking a strong
stance against forced marriage. It is not a cultural or religious
issue. It is an abuse of human rights. The key difference between a
forced and arranged marriage is consent. Arranged marriages are
based on the full and free consent of both parties. A forced
marriage lacks consent, or consent is exacted under physical or
emotional pressure.

Sadly, the abuse doesn’t end once the victim is married. It’s
common for a forced marriage to cover a range of crimes and abuses.
These include education being interrupted, restrictions on freedom
of movement and association, unlawful imprisonment, abduction and

The run-up to school holidays is a key period of the year for
identifying cases of abuse and taking action to prevent forced
marriages. Indeed, the FMU caseload increases up to tenfold as the
summer and Christmas holidays approach as school friends and
professionals report concerns.

There have been several developments since the guidelines were
issued 12 months ago. The government revised its definition of
domestic abuse in October 2004 to include forced marriage. In
January, the Community Liaison Unit at the Foreign Office became
part of the joint Home Office and Foreign Office Forced Marriage

A consultation process is likely to start in June on whether to
make it a criminal offence to force someone into marriage. And a
national campaign is due to start later this year to raise
awareness of the assistance available to people threatened by
forced marriage, and to raise wider awareness that it is an
unacceptable practice. Guidelines for education professionals were
issued in January 2005 and police guidelines were updated and
reissued the following month.

Additionally, the age of entry into the UK for spouses has been
increased from 16 to 18. This is designed to give young people
extra time to mature and resist family pressure. The Domestic
Violence, Crime and Victims Act 2004 allows a person suffering
domestic violence during their probationary immigration period to
remain in the UK if they can demonstrate that they have been forced
to leave the marriage due to violence.

Work isn’t just happening in this country; an extra immigration
officer has been appointed to the British High Commission in
Islamabad to support British nationals who are reluctant to sponsor
their spouse’s entry into the UK. And this month, the FMU ran a
conference in Bangladesh on forced marriage to help identify
emerging issues and develop government policy.

The FMU has also been busy with social services. Many area child
protection committees have adopted the guidelines and organised
training and other events. For example, a recent conference in
Croydon, south London, attracted 200 people across the local
statutory and voluntary sectors including different faith

Rochdale Council has set up a forced marriage forum that has
taken the lead in working with the guidance to ensure all agencies
are clear about the issues. A social services link person on the
forum acts as co-ordinator; this worker is also the social
services’ domestic violence co-ordinator.

Tony Philbin, Rochdale area child protection committee
development worker, says: “We have a mission statement defining
forced marriage as a safeguarding issue and abuse of human

In the London borough of Tower Hamlets, the area child
protection committee holds conferences with the local council of
mosques and routinely involves representatives of local mosques in
the delivery of multi-agency training.

Meanwhile, the ADSS is carrying out a national survey on the
issue and consulting on the need for a multi-agency group to ensure
the issue has a high profile and to share good practice.

Ann Roach, service manager at Tower Hamlets, sees the challenge
for local authorities as addressing the  issue of forced marriage
by engaging communities to change practice. “We have done this in
Tower Hamlets by working alongside valued and respected
representatives from the community who have the influence and
authority to impact on practice.”

Hannah Miller has been director of social services for
Croydon Council since 1998 and is the Association of Directors of
Social Services lead on forced marriage. Previously she was
director of social services for Islington Council. She is a social
worker by profession.

Vinay Talwar is head of the Forced Marriage Unit. He joined the
Foreign Office in 2003 working in the West Africa political
section. He moved to the consular human rights team in November
2004 to work with the Forced Marriage Unit. Previously he worked
for NGO’s for six years.


On the first anniversary of the launch of guidance on forced
marriage for social care staff, this article updates the current
national scene as well as highlighting good practice in local
authorities that are working across agencies, communities and faith
groups to deal with this highly sensitive issue.

Further Information

The Forced Marriage Unit and the Association of Directors of
Social Services will be working together over the next few months
to update and distribute new guidelines for social services. In the
meantime, if you want to get hold of a copy, please contact the
ADSS website at

Contact the Author

Email Hannah Miller at

Email Vinay Talwar at

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