By Conal McGarrity
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Forced Marriage and the Law in Northern Ireland

In the UK, you have the right to choose who you marry, when you marry, or if you marry at all. A marriage is forced if you have not been able to make those choices i.e. if you have faced physical pressure to marry through threats, physical violence, sexual violence or emotional or psychological pressure to do so. A forced marriage is a marriage which takes place against your will or a marriage that you agreed to, but you did not have a choice.

Forced marriage is more likely to involve women, and an estimated 85% of cases referred to the UK Government’s Forced Marriage Unit involve women. However, both men and women may be vulnerable to forced marriage and should be entitled to the same level of help.

In the UK forced marriage is regarded as a form of violence against women and men, domestic and child abuse, and a breach of an individual’s human rights.


The definition of force used by the Government includes physical, psychological, sexual, financial and emotional pressure as well as emotional and psychological abuse or harassment. Forced marriage involves situations where you feel pressured to the point where you agree, but only because you feel you did not have the choice to say no, and you would not have consented had the pressure not been placed on you.


Consent means you have made a free choice to get married and it is your own decision.

Even if you say you agree to marry, this does not always mean you have consented. You must have the freedom to choose whether or not to enter the marriage.  If threats of violence are made against you or another person, or you have been detained against your will, or you believe entering the marriage is required because that is what your family expects, then you may not be able to refuse the marriage and therefore you do not have the freedom to make a choice.

The Difference Between Forced Marriage and Arranged Marriage

The UK Government’s guidelines make clear the important distinctions between a forced marriage and an arranged marriage. In arranged marriages, the families of both spouses take a leading role in arranging the marriage, but the choice of whether or not to accept the arrangement still remains with the prospective spouses.

Some structures that are used in an arranged marriage may also be used in a forced marriage and this can often become confusing in distinguishing between them.

The key distinction is that a forced marriage involves a lack of consent by one or both parties and where coercion or pressure may be a factor.  Arranged marriage involving adults who are freely consenting is legal and does not breach the law or breach legal rights. However, it is important to remember that consenting because of fear or pressure is not true consent.

How the Law can Provide Protection

In the UK, forced marriage is a criminal office. For people who are found guilty of these offences there are a range of sentences available to the courts including a fine, a suspended sentence, time in prison or community sentences. The courts also have the ability to make a restraining order on the defendants even if they are not found guilty. This would be in circumstances where the court believes a person is being harassed or put in fear of violence.

There are also a range of other criminal offences covering acts which often occur when someone is forced into a marriage, for example rape, assault, theft, kidnapping, blackmail and harassment.

In June 2014, the UK Government published an updated version of its Multi-agency practice guidelines, ‘Handling Cases of Forced Marriage’. The primary objective of the guidelines was to offer advice and information to all frontline practitioners and volunteers within agencies that work to safeguard children and young people against abuse and/or protect adults from abuse. The guidelines complement statutory guidance in line with the provisions of the Forced Marriage (Civil Protection) Act 2007 (Commencement No. 1) Order (Northern Ireland) 2008. The practice guidelines include content focused specifically on schools, colleges and universities that makes reference to the role that educational professionals should fulfil in relation to forced marriage.

Forced Marriage Protection Orders (FMPO)

You can apply for a FMPO if you have been forced into a marriage or you believe you are being forced into a marriage. The marriage does not have to have occurred for you to gain protection.  A FMPO is a type of injunction which can forbid a perpetrator from doing certain things such as being physically violent, contacting you both directly or indirectly, taking you out of the country, or making marriage arrangements. The injunction can also require the person named in the order to do certain things, for example, handover passports to the court or ensure a young person attends school.

A FMPO can be made against any persons in the UK or outside, who is, or has been, involved in the forced marriage in any way. This could be your mother, father or other close family member; or someone who you do not know but is involved in the forced marriage. The person’s involvement in the forced marriage does not have to involve them physically abusing or threatening you, or involve any other type of abuse, it could be made against a person who is making arrangements for your wedding or for flights to take you to another country for the purposes of your marriage.

The Forced Marriage Unit

The Forced Marriage Unit (FMU) is a joint Foreign and Commonwealth Office and Home Office Unit, which was set up in January 2005 to lead on the Government’s work on raising awareness of forced marriage, improving policy and supporting victims both inside the UK and overseas.

The FMU works to provide support and develop strategies to prevent UK nationals from being forced into marriage overseas. The Unit offers practical help and guidance to affected UK nationals and produces resources and materials for organisations and individuals directly or indirectly involved in issues associated with forced marriage.

The assistance provided ranges from safety advice, through to helping a forced marriage victim prevent their unwanted spouse moving to the UK (‘reluctant sponsor’ cases). In extreme circumstances the FMU will assist with rescues of victims held against their will overseas.

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