Young children are being pressurised into marrying strangers but fear being rejected from their community if they refuse, the NSPCC has warned.
Girls as young as 12 have contacted Childline about being forced to marry, with 109 counselling sessions on the issue in 2017/18. There were just under 10,500 visits to the Childline forced marriage website page in the same year.
Children told counsellors they were frightened of being taken out of the country for marriage and reported emotional abuse by their parents about the issue.
In 2017/18 the NSPCC’s Helpline received calls from many worried adults of which 14 of these calls were serious enough to refer onto an external agency such as the police and social services.
The NSPCC is revealing the figures as the UK’s school summer holiday begins, a time when some families can exploit the long break to take children overseas and force them to marry.
In some instances children may have been told that they are going on a normal holiday and do not realise that they are heading to their wedding day with a complete stranger. Once they are abroad they may find themselves isolated and find it difficult to raise the alarm and halt the marriage.
The secretive nature of forced marriage combined with feelings of loyalty to family and community can mean it is difficult to grasp the true scale of the problem, the NSPCC warned.
John Cameron, Head of NSPCC Helpline said: “No child should be forced into marriage and we must be clear that, regardless of cultural expectations, this is a crime and a form of child abuse. Forcing a child to marry shows a complete lack of regard for their feelings, thoughts or ambitions.”
It is a criminal offence to force someone to marry and can result in a prison sentence of up to seven years, but many children said their parents were bullying them and threatening them into it.
A 17-year-old girl told counsellors: “I got forced to marry last year. I never wanted any of this. My friends are being supportive but I can’t talk to my mum about it as she thinks he’s the best thing for me and told me that if I end the marriage she won’t speak to me ever again. I’ve never even met him.”
An 18-year-old girl told Childline: “My parents are talking about taking me back to my home country to get married, but I don’t want to. They get violent when I don’t do what they want. I want to leave home but they’d never agree to it. I just want to live a normal teenage life, but they won’t let me.”
Worries about family honour and cultural expectations sometimes acted as barriers for children speaking up while some young people feared that their relatives would be punished if they sought support.
Another reason that stopped young people from resisting forced marriage was fear of judgement and isolation from their community. Such was their worry about being ostracised that some felt they couldn’t have relationships or sex before marriage.
The NSPCC is urging any adult who is worried about a child being forced into marriage to contact the NSPCC helpline, and any child who is concerned to get in touch with Childline so they can be given support and measures can be taken to stop them from being forced into marriage.