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Forced marriage and lockdown in the UK

Just over a year ago people in the UK learned that we would have to “stay at home” apart from for limited trips for food, medical attention, or exercise. For many this was a relief, the risk of infection from Covid-19 seemed severe and the threat of the National Health Service being overwhelmed, imminent. But unfortunately for many people “home” is not somewhere they are safe to stay.

user profile picture Dr Helen McCabe
Assistant Professor in Political Theory

The increase in domestic abuse during 2020 has already made headlines. Our ESRC-funded research explores the impact of Covid-19 and Covid-related decision-making on those vulnerable to, or already experiencing, a specific type of abuse – forced marriage. In the first six months of our project, we have been particularly interested in the impact on service providers including project partners Karma Nirvana (KN), whose Chief Executive and Data Analyst are co-investigators on the grant, and what their data can tell us about the impact on those they work to help. We hope our findings will help service-providers, government agencies, policymakers, and all those tasked with helping prevent forced marriage to have a better sense of how their actions might impact forced marriage in the UK, and build this understanding into on-going Covid-19 responses, and future pandemic-response planning.

In 2019, the UK’s Forced Marriage Unit (FMU) dealt with 1355 cases of forced marriage. In 72 cases “there was no overseas element, with the potential or actual forced marriage taking place entirely in the UK”. A similar number (20%) of the 350 calls received by KN, who run the government-funded national helpline for those at risk, between July 2019 and July 2020 regarded forced marriages solely involving the UK. As the FMU note, this “continues to highlight that forced marriages do take place in the UK”, and though we have no accurate prevalence data, it is likely many more people are affected than contact the FMU.

"We identified school closures as a particular area of impact, with children not regularly in school it would become harder for teachers to spot those at risk, and for children to reach out in confidence to a trusted adult outside their family. Analysis done by our team shows there was a significant decrease in calls relating to forced marriage when schools closed in March, and a corresponding increase in calls to KN’s helpline when schools re-opened in September 2020."
Dr Helen McCabe

Year-on-year around 30% of people helped by the FMU are aged 15-17. 80% of people helped by the FMU are female. KN does a great deal of outreach work in local schools, educating pupils and teachers on the law and how to seek help, and on particular warning signs which should trigger concerns that someone is at risk. Teachers are often viewed as a trusted adult and are approached by children feeling they are at risk. Relatedly, a significant proportion of calls to KN’s helpline come from third parties including teachers, social workers and police. Because of this, we identified school closures as a particular area of impact: with children not regularly in school, it would become harder for teachers to spot those at risk, and for children to reach out in confidence to a trusted adult outside their family; and KN’s outreach work had to be suspended. This concern seems warranted: analysis done by our team shows there was a significant decrease in calls relating to forced marriage when schools closed in March, and a corresponding increase in calls to KN’s helpline when schools re-opened in September 2020. KN also report that during the first lockdown, calls from police and children’s social services, usually their highest source of referrals, fell by 38% and 35% respectively, compared with the same period in 2019.

State-recognised marriages (rather than private religious ceremonies) were not permitted to go ahead under the first lockdown, with some easing of this in later lockdowns in 2020 and 2021. Households were prevented from “mixing” under Covid-19 regulations in all lockdowns and in many further tier restrictions (apart from in “support bubbles”, from June 2020). Similarly, there were many travel restrictions in place, with some countries frequently connected to forced marriage cases dealt with by the FMU (e.g. India) closing their borders to UK flights at different times.

"Restrictions did not necessarily prevent families (and others) from trying to force individuals to agree to a marriage once restrictions lifted."
Dr Helen McCabe

You might imagine that this would lessen the risk of forced marriage, even those without an overseas element. However, these restrictions did not necessarily prevent families (and others) from trying to force individuals to agree to a marriage once restrictions lifted. Some apparently consensual weddings also went ahead, despite Covid-related restrictions, and those forcing marriages may have been equally willing to break these laws. Indeed, callers to KN reported increased levels of abuse whilst in isolation with perpetrators, and that their options for seeking help and exiting the situation were limited due to pandemic restrictions. In addition, “stay at home” orders meant people at risk were less able to access friends or family for support, and had less chance to contact support in private or without perpetrators knowing (and 19 callers to KN’s helpline identified disclosing abuse to a professional as the trigger for the abuse which prompted their call). Rather than seeing no calls related to FM, KN helped 47 new victims suffering abuse related to forced marriage (including threat of, experiencing, or fleeing an existing one). 20 new victims reported the abuse they were experiencing stemmed from saying no to a marriage.

Forced marriage is often portrayed as a crime which only affects Black or Minority Ethnic (BAME) women, and particularly British South Asians. However, it is worth noting that forced marriage can also affect men and does not only affect BAME communities. This said, it does predominantly affect BAME women. A survey run in the first lockdown with BAME specialist support services reported that service users were fearful of going outside their homes and contracting Covid-19. This was by no means an irrational fear: diagnosis rates and death rates were much higher for BAME ethnicities than White British

Black or Minority Ethnic (BAME) women

Forced marriage is often portrayed as a crime which only affects Black or Minority Ethnic (BAME) women, and particularly British South Asians. However, it is worth noting that forced marriage can also affect men and does not only affect BAME communities. This said, it does predominantly affect BAME women. A survey run in the first lockdown with BAME specialist support services reported that service users were fearful of going outside their homes and contracting Covid-19. This was by no means an irrational fear: diagnosis rates and death rates were much higher for BAME ethnicities than White British. Evidence suggests, then, that Covid-19 disproportionately affected people at risk from forced marriage, as well as Covid-related decision-making by government having significant impacts.

KN and other service providers have been working from home throughout the pandemic, with attendant impacts on staff as they are now dealing with traumatic calls within their own homes, often on their personal phones. One positive to emerge from the shift to remote-working, however, is that KN have been included in Silver Command and other key decision-making groups in Westminster, which they were previously unable to attend due to not being based in London. We hope this will continue in future to help the UK more effectively end forced marriage by 2030.

 

Written by:
Dr Helen McCabe
Assistant Professor in Political Theory

Dr Helen McCabe in an Assistant Professor in Political Theory in the School of Politics and International Relations. She leads the work on forced marriage in the Rights Lab, a University of Nottingham beacon of research excellence.

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