The forced marriage of people with learning disabilities is a largely hidden problem. Little data has been collected on prevalence and there is a widespread lack of awareness of the particular features of such forced marriages. Instead, the information we have has largely come from the frontline professionals who have encountered cases.
Ann Craft Trust has been working with other organisations, including Respond, the Judith Trust and the Forced Marriage Unit, to raise awareness of this problem and the issues involved. We aim to ensure that legislation, guidance and good practice equip professionals to deal with forced marriages of people with learning disabilities.
The majority of the cases of forced marriage reported to date in the UK involve South Asian families (Forced Marriage Unit). The prevalence of learning disabilities in South Asian communities is up to three times higher than in other communities, primarily for reasons of social and material deprivation as well as issues over access to healthcare (Learning Disabilities and Ethnicity , Department of Health, 2001, pg. 10).
A study of people with learning disabilities in Tower Hamlets who were either married, pregnant or 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 noted that it was questionable whether or not many of the Bangladeshi parents were able to give informed consent to marriage (O'Hara, Jean & Hemmie, Martin, Parents with Learning Disabilities: a Study of Gender and Cultural Perspectives in East London , British Journal of Learning Disabilities, 31, 2003).
In evidence to the Home Affairs Select Committee on 25th March 2008, Mark Sedwill, Director of UK Visas, stated that in 2007 the consul in Pakistan dealt with 250 cases in which a UK citizen was a “reluctant sponsor” of a visa. 86 of these cases involved adults with severe disabilities somehow involved in a marital case.
KC & NNC v City of Westminster v IC - IC Neutral Citation Number:  EWCA Civ 198. This court case concerned a young man with autism and severe learning disabilities referred to in court as IC. In September 2006, IC's parents arranged for him to be married to NK. The marriage took place over the telephone, while IC was in the UK and NK in Bangladesh . The parties to the case accepted that the marriage was recognised in Bangladeshi and Sharia law. IC does not have capacity in English law to enter into marriage or engage in sexual relations. The Court of Appeal ruled that the marriage was not entitled to recognition in UK law. It also ruled that the marriage was “potentially highly injurious” to IC and that consummating the marriage would constitute rape or indecent assault.
People with learning disabilities may be forced into marriage for the same reasons that anyone is forced into marriage. However, there are reasons which are more specific to these cases.
Sexual assault and rape - The expectation that marriage will be consummated and result in children means that people with learning disabilities who are forced into marriage may be subjected to sexual assault and rape. As many people with learning disabilities do not receive sex education, they may be ill-equipped to handle unwanted sexual advances, not understand sex, be unaware of contraception and not understand that children can be a consequence of sex.
Domestic violence and abuse – families may keep from the potential spouse that a person has learning disabilities because of the stigma some attach to learning disabilities. They may fear that openness will lead to a wedding being cancelled. Also, a spouse may have little understanding of learning disabilities and how they might support the person they have married. The spouse's resulting feelings of resentment and confusion may lead to domestic violence and abuse.
A double forced marriage – if a spouse has not been informed that their partner has learning disabilities, it is questionable whether they have given informed consent to the marriage. Questions about informed consent also arise if the spouse is unaware that they are being married into the role of full-time carer. The spouse may also be vulnerable to abuse from the family of the person with learning disabilities.
Abandonment - A person with learning disabilities who is forced into marriage may be abandoned by their spouse. This can create feelings of rejection, stigmatise the person and possibly lead to the loss of a primary carer. This abandonment could be because (a) the spouse was unaware of all of the circumstances of the marriage and / or (b) they simply used the marriage to facilitate an improvement in their immigration status.
Ann Craft Trust supports the right of people with learning disabilities, who have capacity to consent to marriage, to marry. We support their right to enter into an arranged marriage. However, assistance must be provided to people with learning disabilities, who have capacity, entering into marriage to ensure (a) informed consent to marriage and sex and (b) understanding by both spouses of what their marriage might entail.
Our original evidence to the Joint Committee on Human Rights also described this serious issue and suggested reforms to public policy. Further information can be found in our main submission to the Joint Committee and in our supplemental evidence. This is an issue on which we are continuing to campaign.
Forced Marriage (Civil Protection) Act
Parliament recently debated the Forced Marriage (Civil Protection) Bill and we used this opportunity to highlight this hidden problem. Jo Swinson MP kindly tabled an amendment to the Bill to ensure the needs of people with learning disabilities are met when courts consider forced marriage cases and you can read our briefing on this amendment here.
We have also recently offered our suggestions on how the Forced Marriage Civil (Protection) Act can protect people with learning disabilities and you can read additional information on this by clicking here.
You can also read our comments on the draft statutory guidance made under the Forced Marriage (Civil Protection) Act