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Unlocked Stories: Tackling Forced Marriages

Published on | General

DS Trudy Gittins shared with us her first hand story of tackling the first FMPO case in the West Midlands, and first regarding an adult male in the country.

DS Trudi Gittins, with a victim of forced marriage.

What is forced marriage?

A forced marriage is very different to an arranged marriage. An arranged marriage is where  families take a leading role, but both parties have the free will and choice to accept or decline the arrangement. Therefore if either one of them don’t want to marry the person their family has chosen for them, they don’t have to and there are very many happy and successful arranged marriages. A forced marriage however is where one or both spouses do not (or, in the case of some people with learning disabilities, cannot ) consent to the marriage and the victim is threatened or bullied into making such a marriage. This bullying can include physical, psychological, financial, sexual and emotional pressure.

DS Trudi Gittin

There are many reasons why a person may be forced into a marriage which can include:

  • Parents belief that religion or culture is being preserved
  • Pressure from peers or family members
  • Protecting “family honour” or “izzat”
  • Preventing unwanted relationships outside the ethnicity, culture, religion or caste
  • Belief that it will strengthen family links
  • Financial gain (land, property or wealth remains within a family )
  • Control unwanted behaviour or sexuality ( e.g. promiscuity, gay, lesbian behaviour, alcohol abuse, drug abuse, wearing make-up and westernised behaviour )
  • Settling family disputes
  • Assisting claims for country residence
  • Obtaining a long term carer for the person with a learning disability
  • Believing the marriage will somehow “cure” a disability

What is the law against forced marriage?

In 2008, the Forced Marriage (Civil Protection) Act 2007 introduced Forced Marriage Protection Orders (FMPO) in England, Wales and Northern Ireland to help protect adults and children who are being forced into marriage or who were already in a forced marriage.

FMPO’s are obtained through a civil court and act as a warning to make perpetrators of forced marriage change their behaviours and actions in relation to forcing someone into a marriage. If anyone contained within the FMPO disobeys this court order then the breach becomes criminal and they can be sent to prison for up to two years for contempt of court on this alone. The actual breach of a FMPO is also a criminal offence with a maximum sentence of five years imprisonment.

Policing forced marriage

Back in 2008, forced marriage was very much an issue that policing was still learning a lot about and was trying to further understand.

The biggest thing to recognise and for us to learn about forced marriage is that it is often perpetrated by those who are closest to us and those who should be there to protect and nurture us from harm. Perpetrators for forced marriage often include parents, siblings, cousins, friends and communities both here and abroad, who can all work together to force someone into marriage. Therefore, it can be viewed very much as organised crime.

Back in 2008, I was the Sergeant on an Adult Safeguarding Team working within Public Protection. Also on my team was a highly skilled and experienced police support staff worker called Rachel Cupitt. We had both had an input on FMPO’s at a training event at Tally Ho and they had been legislation for just one week when a referral came in from Adult Services to say that a care home had got in touch with an adult male within their care, who lacked mental capacity. The care home suspected that the young man was about to be taken abroad to be forced into marriage by his family.

The young gentleman in his 20’s, who Trudi has given the pseudonym ‘Alex’, had not been visited by his family in several years when out of the blue they visited his care home without warning. Alex’s family asked to speak with him in a private room, and later informed staff at the care home they would be taking him abroad the following week to visit a dying relative – a common narrative that is used to manipulate individuals to travel abroad.

It was Alex’s who discussed the real story with staff, sharing excitement for his upcoming marriage. “He told them that he would be dressed as Peter Pan, Minnie Mouse was to be his bridesmaid and that Donald Duck would be his best man.” To Alex it all sounded like a fantastic party; his lack of mental capacity in many aspects of his life meant he had no real comprehension of what a marriage really meant.

We could all collectively see that Alex was at risk of significant harm and could not truly give his consent to marriage, as he did not understand what it was or what it involved long term. We believed that the long flight in itself would cause considerable discomfort due to Alex not being able to sit still; there were concerns over his care plan being implemented correctly by virtual strangers which included administering medication; he would be in a foreign country hours away, with no one who understood his needs and without being able to properly communicate; there may be an expectation for him to have a baby which again could amount to abuse as he also could not truly consent to sexual intercourse as he did not understand what this was… We also believed that there was a risk of a double forced marriage whereby his intended bride would not even know about Alex’s needs and disabilities and would therefore be forced and expected to be his long term carer and also the carer to his aging parents. This marriage could therefore have also led to frustration and anger on her part, causing domestic abuse. We further suspected that immigration was at the heart of this forced marriage to enable his bride to reside in England, which could have been of financial benefit to Alex’s family. Marriage can be seen as a means of improving the chances of getting a visa to the UK. A person with learning disabilities can be easier to deceive or coerce into such a marriage and into then acting as a visa sponsor.

Trudi and Rachel secured evidence and applied for a FMPO – the first in the West Midlands, and first one for an adult male without capacity nationally – there had only been one previous FMPO obtained within the country for a young girl. The FMPO was served to Alex’s family, who since have never visited him again or tried to contest the order.

Both Rachel and I then began to learn so much more about the issues of forced marriage and also its link with disability. We created training packages and even spoke at a Parliamentary Group at the House of Commons on the case of Alex and others. We were also in the final for a Criminal Justice Award in London and Rachel, for her work on this case and also other investigations, received the prestigious WMP Joyce Campbell Award. I went on to be the WMP Subject Matter Expert for Forced Marriage and have spoken both nationally and internationally on these issues to help inform other forces, partners and communities.

We will never forget the case of Alex as it taught us so much about spotting the signs of forced marriage and putting the right prevention and safeguarding in place. It also taught us a lot about diversity and that forced marriage happens to boys and girls, women and men and to those with learning disabilities. It taught us about different cultures and traditions but where those cultures and traditions become crimes, we must act immediately to protect the victim.

‘We must not allow political correctness to lead us to moral blindness’. (Mike O’Brien)

‘Cultural acceptance does not mean accepting the unacceptable’. (Sir Ian Blair)

‘Do not stigmatise the whole of the community for the acts of a few’. (Nasheima Sheikh Assistant Chief Executive, B’ham & Solihull Women’s Aid)