16 Days of Activism - Not for Love But to Control

By Polly Harrar, Founder, The Sharan Project on 01 December 2021 MSWs - Maternity Support Workers Domestic Abuse Wellbeing Of Women

When we think of a forced marriage, we often visualise a fragile female, chained and dragged behind a much older man towards the altar. Whilst this may be a helpful visualisation of the force, coercion and control involved, the reality that so many face on a daily basis in the UK is far worse.

For many it is the start of a lifetime of misery, abuse and sexual violence. Living with a stranger who has been chosen for you as your life partner, with his family,  in a new property, in a new area can be both frightening and unsettling.

In the UK it is estimated that there are between 5000 – 8000 forced marriages in the UK each year. (1) A forced marriage is defined as “where one or both parties do not CONSENT to the marriage and where force or duress has been used. In the case of people with learning disabilities, there may be no CAPACITY to consent and therefore will always need to be treated as FORCED”.(2) It was criminalised in 2014 under the Anti-social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Act and comes with a maximum sentence of seven years imprisonment. Additionally, where there is a breach of a forced marriage protection order (FMPO), which is protective Order issued by the courts to place conditions on a party or parties who have been identified as placing or potentially placing an individual at risk of being forced into a marriage, this breach can now lead to a five-year sentence as a criminal offence. (3)

So why are there so few convictions of this abhorrent crime? The vast majority of victims just want the abuse to stop, to be safe, to complete their education, to get on with their lives. There is also the fear of being disowned by your family and community for saying no or seeking to leave an abusive relationship. This fear grows silently within and can result in losing contact with everyone and everything you have ever known, starting again in a new area, on your own and not knowing where to turn or who to trust. When the very people who have raised you and should protect you are the same people causing you harm, it can be very difficult to reconcile, particularly when you still love them so the idea of criminalising them is not a priority.

Fleeing a potential or actual forced marriage or indeed any form of abuse takes great courage and comes with a variety of challenges. Legislation certainly helps as a tool to offer protection but more still needs to be done to ensure it doesn’t happen in the first place. Prevention takes a whole society approach, and everyone has a role to play to better understand the issues, provide sustainable support and access to specialist services to help victims and survivors to rebuild their lives.

The Sharan Project is a ‘by and for’ charity that supports all women, particularly women from South Asian backgrounds who have been affected by abuse or persecution, to include forced marriage, honour-based abuse, dowry violence, domestic abuse and other forms of harmful practices. The charity is also the lead delivery partner for EDAC, the first UK Covenant to address Domestic Abuse by supporting women to enter or re enter the workplace.

The Forced Marriage Unit (FMU) is a joint Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO) and Home Office unit which leads on the government’s forced marriage policy, outreach and casework. It operates both inside the UK (where support is provided to any individual) and overseas (where consular assistance is provided to British nationals, including dual nationals) and can offer advice and support.

If you or someone you know is in immediate danger, contact the police on 999, for free, confidential support or advice contact the Sharan Project on 0300 103 3231 or the FMU on 2027 008 0151.(4)


Polly Harrar is a leading subject matter expert on forced marriage and honour based abuse. She is the co-chair of the London Harmful Practices Working Group led by the Met Police and has been recognised by Amnesty International as a human rights defender.

Additional Information

1/ https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/894428/Forced_Marriage_Unit_statistics_2019.pdf

2 & 4/ https://www.gov.uk/guidance/forced-marriage  

3/ https://www.gov.uk/apply-forced-marriage-protection-order