Professor James Walker, RCOG Senior Vice President (Global Health), writes…
Being coerced or forced into marriage is a form of abuse that is unacceptable in our modern society.
Forced marriage also has many significant and worrying consequences including, higher rates of maternal mortality and morbidities as well as the associations with domestic violence, rape, sexual abuse and poor educational attainment.
New figures released this week by the Forced Marriage Unit (FMU), a joint-initiative between the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) and the Home Office to prevent forced marriage and safeguard at-risk women, reinforce the harsh reality of forced marriage in the UK and worldwide. The FMU gave advice or support in 1,485 cases in 2012 and the Government estimates there are up to 8,000 cases of forced marriage in the UK. At least 250 children in the UK have been helped by the unit with the youngest case involving a two-year-old.
It is promising, however, that our Government has demonstrated strong political will to tackle forced marriage in the UK. We were very much encouraged by the Prime Minister’s statement last year that arrangements are being made to make forced marriage a criminal offence and we eagerly await this announcement. By criminalising forced marriage, the government is sending a strong message that this outdated practice will not be tolerated.
As healthcare professionals, we are in the frontline in helping to identify and care for women affected by forced marriage. The physical signs of abuse are visible but the psychological threats that women and girls suffer are more difficult to discern and have a long-lasting impact on their mental health and wellbeing. Doctors sometimes have difficulties broaching the subject with patients whom are suspected victims because of the cultural sensitivities involved.
Healthcare professionals may be interested in the iPhone app developed by Freedom Charity which is designed to provide information about forced marriage and signpost sources of support to both potential victims and professionals.
To mark International Women’s Day this year, we are hosting an event on ending forced marriage. The event not only aims to raise awareness and focus on the impact and effects of forced marriages in the UK and around the world, to flag the warning signs and symptoms of women who have experienced forced marriage amongst healthcare professionals, but also to learn from charities such as Karma Nirvana and the Iranian and Kurdish Women’s Rights Organisation (IKWRO) who work tirelessly with women who have experienced forced marriage .
Forced marriage is violation of human rights. As the professional body for those specialising in women’s health, we must all become advocates for the women we serve.