Spotting the signs of forced marriage


A majority of forced marriage victims are young people who are still at school and teachers and school nurses have a key role in helping to spot the warning signs. Carla Thomas offers her advice and signposts some resources.


Farzana was only 15 when she was forced into a marriage to a cousin she barely knew. Her parents told her they would be travelling to Pakistan to visit her grandfather who was sick, but when she arrived Farzana discovered a marriage was planned for her.

Alone in an unfamiliar country and threatened by her own parents. Farzana had no choice but to go through with the marriage. Once she was married, Farzana was repeatedly raped until she became pregnant. She never went back to school in the UK, and remained trapped in an abusive relationship in Pakistan.

Farzana’s story is all too common. At the government’s Forced Marriage Unit (FMU), we receive almost 1,500 phone calls a year relating to a possible or actual forced marriage. Three quarters of the victims in cases where the age was known are young people aged under 25, with the majority of cases (82 per cent) involving a female victim. 

While the majority of our cases involve a victim being taken overseas for a forced marriage, we also see cases where the marriage takes place entirely within the UK. 

What is a forced marriage?

Forcing someone to marry is a serious abuse of human rights and a form of domestic abuse. Where children are involved, it is child abuse. A forced marriage almost always involves rape, usually repeated rape until the victim becomes pregnant. 

Victims also experience violence from their own family, their spouse and the spouse’s family. In the most serious cases, the victim has been murdered after trying to escape – a so-called “honour” killing.

We define a forced marriage as “a marriage conducted without the valid consent of both parties, where duress is a factor”. Duress can include physical violence but also emotional abuse and psychological pressure. For example, we have heard victims tell us that a parent has threatened to kill themselves if they do not go through with a forced marriage. 

A forced marriage is different from an arranged marriage, where although a third party (usually the parents) introduces the two spouses, the choice of whether or not to go through with the marriage remains with the spouses. A young person knows whether they are entering into a marriage of their own free will, or whether they are being forced, and this is always our starting point.

The reasons for a forced marriage vary. Some of the victims we speak to have been forced into marriage as a way to control their behaviour, or prevent them from developing “unsuitable” relationships. In some cases, the reason is that the victim is lesbian, gay or bisexual. 

Other reasons can be to strengthen family links, including through marriage to extended family members from the parents’ country of origin. In some cases, this is linked to obtaining UK residency or citizenship for the spouse. None of these are acceptable reasons to deny someone their right to choose a spouse.

Our response

The FMU is a joint Home Office and Foreign and Commonwealth Office unit set up to tackle the problem of forced marriage. We handle cases of forced marriage in the UK and cases involving British nationals overseas, as well as developing government policy on forced marriage and running an outreach programme to raise awareness among potential victims.

If a victim contacts the FMU, a trained case-worker will talk them through their options: to go through with the marriage, to leave the family and start a new life, or to obtain a Forced Marriage Protection Order (FMPO) for legal protection. 

An FMPO is a civil order obtained in the family courts and can stipulate that persons named in the order do not force a person into marriage, or take them overseas for that purpose. 

Powers of arrest can be attached to the order, and a breach can attract a sentence of up to two years imprisonment. It can be a powerful form of legal protection for victims which does not require them to enter the criminal justice system.

If victims have already travelled overseas for a forced marriage, we will work with our network of Embassies and High Commissions around the world to help them return to the UK. We can obtain a FMPO to mandate that they be brought back to the UK or to the nearest British Embassy or High Commission. 

In certain countries where it is safe to do so, we can conduct a rescue of the victim from where they are being held with the support of local authorities. If the victim has already been forced into marriage, we can signpost them to help to seek a divorce or annulment of the marriage. 

We are currently developing legislation to make forcing someone to marry a criminal offence. This reflects the seriousness of the issue and our commitment to protecting victims. The legislation will include forcing someone to marry in the UK or taking someone overseas to force them into marriage.

The existing civil route of a FMPO will remain open to give victims a choice about how they want to be assisted.

How schools can help

The most important thing schools, especially school nurses, can do to help victims of forced marriage is to create an atmosphere where they feel able to disclose their concerns. 

It takes enormous courage to ask for help after experiencing abuse, especially if the victim has been told they will bring shame on their family by doing so. By creating an open and supportive environment where victims feel able to disclose the abuse they are suffering, school nurses may save a victim’s life.

All the information a school professional needs to respond to a case of forced marriage is available from the FMU in Multi-agency Practice Guidelines: Handling cases of forced marriage, which can be downloaded online (see further information).

The advice below is drawn from this guidance. In all cases, school professional should contact the FMU to discuss their concerns at the earliest possible opportunity. 


As victims may not disclose forced marriage at first, school professionals need to be able to spot the signs that a victim may be at risk. Victims under pressure from their families may present to school nurses with depression and self-harming behaviour such as anorexia, cutting, substance misuse or attempted suicide. They may ask school nurses for vaccinations for an upcoming “family holiday” or about contraception. 

Victims who have already been forced into marriage may have injuries consistent with rape or domestic violence and may ask about termination of a pregnancy.

To establish whether forced marriage is a factor, school nurses in particular can ask open questions to help you identify risk factors – such as:

  • How are things at home?

  • Do you get on well with your parents?

  • Apart from school, do you go out much?

All school staff should be aware that young people at risk are often strictly monitored by their parents. They may not be able to attend after-school activities or be allowed to talk to the opposite sex. They may be monitored by siblings while at school. They may not be allowed to consider going to university or getting a job after leaving school or college.

They may be about to travel on a planned “family holiday” or moving overseas which may be a cover story for a forced marriage. If these factors are present, the young person may be at risk of forced marriage and you should contact the FMU.

When speaking to the victim, it is important to reassure them that whatever they tell you will be confidential. This is especially important for young people, who may be worried that you will tell their parents what you have said. 

If the victim requires an interpreter, never use family or friends as the victim may feel that they cannot speak freely in front of them. If a victim does disclose that they have been forced into marriage or you believe they are at risk, you should contact the FMU immediately. 

We can talk the victim through their options and help them make their own choice. We can help with safety planning or arrange safe accommodation for the victim, either through local foster care or in a refuge depending on their age. 

We can also support the school, police or children’s social care services in obtaining an FMPO. If the victim is a child under-18, you should also contact children’s social care services for safeguarding purposes. 

Raising awareness

Schools can also help to raise awareness of forced marriage among students. The FMU runs an outreach programme for schools and can visit to speak to students or provide training for staff.

Schools can also help raise awareness by displaying materials about forced marriage and honour-based violence around the school, including in community languages, and teaching about forced marriage as part of the PSHE curriculum. 

There are resources available from the FMU for this work. As part of our “right to choose” campaign last summer we made three short films telling victims’ stories. These are available on our website or on YouTube and could be used as part of a lesson on forced marriage. 

We have also launched a SmartPhone app which can be downloaded for free from Freedom Charity. It provides advice for young people and professionals on how to spot the signs of a forced marriage and where they can go for help. 

By making students aware that forced marriage is a risk and that there is support available, schools can protect vulnerable young people from a life of abuse.

Case study: Amani

Amani was a year 7 pupil at a school in Bristol when her mum told her she would be going to Somalia to visit relatives. When they got to Somalia, Amani’s mum remarried and Amani was told she had to get married too. 

Amani was forced into marriage at 13 and had her first child at 14 and her second at 16. She was raped at gunpoint by her husband and beaten in front of her children. At 18, Amani persuaded her husband to agree for the whole family to travel to the British Embassy in Nairobi, Kenya, and apply for visas for the whole family to live in the UK.

Staff at the British High Commission in Nairobi realised there was a problem and helped Amani escape with her children. Amani didn’t have her passport, but staff could issue an Emergency Travel Document for her to return to the UK. 

They could also issue travel documents for her children who were also British citizens. Consular staff accompanied Amani and her children to the airport and made sure she boarded the plane safely. Amani is now living in the UK with her children and is safe and well.

Further information


Please view our Terms and Conditions before leaving a comment.

Change the CAPTCHA codeSpeak the CAPTCHA code
Sign up SecEd Bulletin