Forced marriage of people with learning disabilities

The exploitation of learning disabilities in forced marriages has only recently come to light, but it is a practice that has gone on for years, writes Natalie Valios

When can consummating a marriage constitute rape or indecent assault? When it’s a forced marriage. This year forced marriage hit the public consciousness after the Home Affairs Select Committee report into domestic violence, forced marriage and “honour”-based violence generated much media attention.

But a less well-known variation of what is a criminal act coming to public attention involves the forced marriage of people with learning disabilities.

Take the case of IC, as he was known in court. Two years ago, IC, a young man with autism and severe learning disabilities, was married over the phone to a woman living in Bangladesh who did not have learning disabilities. The Court of Appeal ruled that the marriage was not entitled to recognition in UK law, and Lord Justice Thorpe said consummating the marriage would be tantamount to rape or indecent assault.

“[The parents’] engineering of the telephonic marriage is potentially, if not actually, abusive of IC,” the judge added.

Data from the Forced Marriage Unit reveal that most cases reported in the UK involve South Asian families. Given that the prevalence of learning disabilities in South Asian families is up to three times higher than other ­communities, it follows that forced marriage is likely to become a serious issue.

Tower Hamlets is a case in point: three years ago a study of people with learning disabilities in the east London borough who were either married, pregnant or were parents found that all the Bangladeshi women identified were married. Less than half of the other women with learning disabilities in the study were married. The authors concluded that it was questionable whether all the Bangladeshi women would have been able to give informed consent to marriage.

The motives behind families forcing their children with learning disabilities into marriage are often the same as for any other forced marriage – cultural attitudes which see marriage as the norm, responding to peer pressure, and to ensure marriage to someone of the same class and religion.

But it can also have unique causes, says Mandy Sanghera, a trustee of Voice UK: “Some families see marriage as a way of providing a carer for their child, so feel they have their child’s best interests at heart.”

Rarely positive

The consequences of such forced marriages are rarely positive. They can vary from sexual assault and rape domestic violence and abuse a double forced marriage (where the person without learning disabilities is unaware that they are being married into the role of full-time carer) and abandonment – while the person with learning disabilities hardly ever leaves the marriage, as they are rarely in a position to do so, it is common for their spouses to leave them.

However, some feel forced to remain in an unhappy marriage. “There is a lot of pressure in some communities to stay together and a real stigma to divorce,” says Sanghera. “If they come from overseas they might not have the support networks and language skills to leave. They might be very isolated and end up being a reluctant carer.”

Since it was set up in 2005, the Forced Marriage Unit has encountered many cases involving people with mental health needs and learning disabilities. Hannah Buckley, joint head of the FMU, says: “From early on we were made aware of cases involving individuals with learning disabilities.”

As yet there are no numbers on record. Victims are dealt with over the phone or by e-mail and they aren’t generally questioned about physical or learning disabilities. The unit will be working with learning disability charities the Judith Trust and Respond on how to best record this information.

“Hopefully, we will have data by this time next year,” says Buckley.

Unlike other cases of forced marriage, those involving learning disabilities usually come to the attention of the FMU through professionals, organisations and trusted representatives, rather than through the person with learning disabilities themselves.

Buckley cites one example: “A young woman who had severe learning disabilities confided in a former teacher who contacted the unit as her representative. The woman had been told she was going on holiday. She was then forced into marriage, raped and came back pregnant. She was asked to sign forms she didn’t understand which were for her husband’s visa.

“We discovered she’d been married to four other men. So we refused her last husband’s visa, removed her from the family home and placed her in a refuge.”

On the flipside, the FMU had a case where someone had been brought to the UK to act as a carer and was then treated like a slave.

“These people are victims too. So there aren’t any winners – apart from those who want a passport,” she adds.

The particular complications of these cases have led the FMU to look at the ­possibility of producing literature for people with learning disabilities, and it has enlisted Sanghera’s help.

Voice UK

Sanghera and Buckley were speakers at a recent Voice UK all-party parliamentary group meeting on forced marriage of people with learning disabilities. The meeting brought much-needed attention to a practice that has been going on with little interference for years – often because the marriages take place abroad so victims never come to the attention of relevant authorities.

Earlier this month, a former clinical psychologist contacted the Judith Trust with anecdotal evidence from the 1980s. He had assessed twin teenage Pakistani girls regarding the suitability of their placement and their ability levels. Later, a local imam contacted social services to seek information about the girls’ suitability for marriage and the psychologist met him.

“He told me of family plans to send the girls home to find husbands. I told the imam that in my view neither twin was capable of giving informed consent. This confirmed his anxieties but he told me he had no power to interfere. Shortly after this the twins were withdrawn from the centre. Staff were told they had returned to Pakistan.”

Almost two years later, in another job, the psychologist was visiting a special needs centre where he recognised one of the twins. “Staff told me they had been married in Pakistan but had recently returned to the UK. One girl was pregnant. I expressed strong concern to social services about the care of the girl and her baby. They made tentative approaches to the family. This, however, led to the girls and the baby leaving the area. It was thought that they had returned to Pakistan but that their husbands had remained in the UK.”

Sanghera became aware of the issue nearly 15 years ago when she was working in Canada. When she returned to the UK she realised the same thing was happening here.

“It seemed that men with learning disabilities were being married as a means to obtain a carer, and women with learning disabilities were being married so their family could maintain face in the community.

“Forced marriages have been going on for a long time. The trouble was that some people didn’t want to accept it happened, it was too shocking to believe. It still is for some people. Some professionals don’t know the difference between arranged and forced marriages. Some were worried what would happen if they confronted it. There was a fear of offending communities.”

Upsetting clients

Mark Wakefield can relate to professionals’ fear of upsetting clients. As a director of Sharon Paley Consultancy, an independent training provider in the areas of challenging behaviour, autism and learning disabilities, he has been working with ethnic minority groups to help parents learn how to manage their children.

“One parent talked about his son’s wife having trouble managing their son’s behaviour and that’s when we clicked that he was married,” he says. “It became apparent that several learning disabled children, particularly males, were married. We were shocked because the level of disability some of these parents were talking about would mean that they wouldn’t understand what marriage was about.

“The elders were saying it would mean they didn’t put a burden on the state and they didn’t want strangers looking after their children. The arguments sounded convincing. We thought, naively, that perhaps this was culturally appropriate.

“But we were struggling to come to terms with it. We’re looking for ways forward. We recognise that, for these parents to attend a group and admit that their child has a disability, is a big step forward. I don’t want to go in and lay down the law and say ‘you shouldn’t be doing this’. I don’t want to alienate them by telling them they are in effect abusing their children by forcing them to marry. That will end up breaking up the groups that have helped us start making inroads, so it’s about sensitivity.”

The Forced Marriage (Civil Protection) Act 2007, which comes into force in November, should help professionals like Wakefield. It means the FMU can re-release its guidelines on a statutory footing and there will be specific ones for agencies working with vulnerable adults. It will provide measures so that the courts can prevent forced marriages people will be able to apply for injunctions at county courts and, importantly for these particular cases, third parties will be able to apply for them on behalf of someone else.

We mustn’t forget, says Sanghera, that marriage is a right for people with learning disabilities who have capacity. “We have to make sure that people are supported to enjoy that right and not forced into marriage.

“The more people know about this, the easier it will be to stop forced marriage. No religion condones forced marriage, but some don’t realise this. We have to educate frontline staff, they need to know how to spot cases and how to work with families.

“Families may feel that marriage is the only way to ensure care and a ‘normal life’ for their child. We have to make sure there is an alternative, with culturally appropriate services they want to use.”

Ultimately, says Buckley, forced marriage is a human rights abuse: “Multi-cultural sensitivity is no excuse for moral blindness.

Forced marriage defined

Forced marriage is where one or both parties do not consent to the marriage, or that consent is extracted under duress which can be physical, emotional or financial. This shouldn’t be confused with an arranged marriage, where the couple’s families take a leading role in choosing the marriage partner, but the marriage is entered into freely by both parties with their consent.

Professionals can find this a particularly grey area when it comes to vulnerable adults who have impaired capacity, and might not fully understand what marriage is or what it entails. Crucially, a parent or carer cannot give permission for a vulnerable adult to marry, irrespective of their well-meaning intentions.


“They might see it as an easy way to marry and get a visa”

Voice UK’s Mandy Sanghera spells out how stigma and the need for a visa can lead to forced marriages.

“There’s a real stigma against learning disabilities in some communities. Parents worry that no one will ever marry their son or daughter if they find out they have learning disabilities. So they might say they are ‘slow’ or hide the learning disabilities from the other family.

“The husband or wife might become resentful once they discover the truth, particularly if they are expected to be a carer and they had not agreed to this. This could lead to domestic violence. Also, if the person with learning disabilities knows little about sex or lacks capacity to consent then there might be rape.

“Sometimes the person knows the other person has learning disabilities. They might see it as an easy way to get married and so get a visa. The family are just happy that someone wants to marry their child and so don’t ask questions. Then the person leaves once their visa is sorted.”

This article is published in the 28 August edition of Community Care magazine under the headline Forced marriage of people with learning disabilities

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