Forced Marriage


Compiled by: Mahad Ibrahim Mohamed

Marriage is a formalized, binding partnership and a legal union between consenting adults. People force others into marriage due to a range of factors such as preserving wealth and family reputation. Child marriage involves either one or both spouses being children and may take place under civil, religious or customary laws with or without formal registration. A child is usually someone under 18.

In brief, marriage is when two people willingly come together to make a lifetime commitment to live with each other. And when one party is unwilling but gets involved to various circumstances then the essence of marriage is violated. Such is what happens in forced marriage, an issue that had been existed in our society for a very long time. Forced marriage is common practice among the Somali, Oromo, Amhara, Borana, and Maasai in the Horn of Africa and among other ethnic communities.

Forced marriage is a term used to describe a marriage in which one or both of the parties are married without his or her consent or against his or her will. A forced marriage differs from an arranged marriage, in which both parties consent to the assistance of their parents or a third party (such as a matchmaker) in identifying a spouse, although the difference between the two may be indistinct. The practice of forced marriage was quite common amongst the upper classes in Europe until the 20th century, and is still practiced in parts of South Asia, East Asia, the Middle East, and Africa.


A forced marriage is a marriage that is performed under pressure and without the full and informed consent or free will of both parties.

Being under duress includes feeling both physical and emotional pressure. Some victims of forced marriage are tricked into going to another country by their families. Victims fall prey to forced marriage through deception, abduction, coercion, fear, and inducements.

A forced marriage may be between children, a child and an adult, or between adults. Forced marriages are not limited to women and girls, as boys and men are also forced to marry against their will.

A forced marriage is considered to be domestic violence. From an international perspective forced marriage is considered a form of trafficking in persons and is a severe human rights violation.

Victims of forced marriages often experience physical violence, rape, abduction, torture, false imprisonment and enslavement, sexual abuse, mental and emotional abuse, and at times, murder.


“No marriage shall be legally entered into without the full and free consent of both parties, such consent to be expressed by them in person after due publicity and in the presence of the authority competent to solemnize the marriage and of witnesses, as prescribed by law.”

Source: Convention on Consent to Marriage, Minimum Age for Marriage and Registration of Marriages. Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights.

The United Nations views forced marriage as a form of human rights abuse, since it violates the principle of the freedom and autonomy of individuals. In response to the problem of forced marriages among immigrants in the UK, the Forced Marriage (Civil Protection) Act 2007 was passed, which enables the victims of forced marriage to apply for court orders for their protection.

What is a forced marriage?

A forced marriage happens when one or both participants are coerced into matrimony – without their free consent.

They may have been emotionally blackmailed, physically threatened or abused.

Forced marriages differ from arranged ones, which may have been set up by a relative or friend, but are willingly agreed to by the couple.

Some young people, especially of South Asian origin, have been taken on visits to the subcontinent by their families, unaware of plans to marry them off. Passports have been confiscated to prevent them returning home.

Those who either have been or fear being forced into marriage can become depressed and frightened, develop mental and physical health problems and harm themselves.

A number of those trying to escape unwanted unions have even become victims of honour-based violence or committed suicide.

The practice crosses boundaries of culture and class and happens worldwide, but it especially concerns those living in and originating from Asia.

“It’s tradition, not religion, that is the problem,” says an Indian origin girl, who runs a charity that helps forced marriage victims and survived a forced marriage herself.

Human rights’ violation

International bodies have condemned forced unions and supported women’s right to choose their marriage partner.

Forced marriage is a violation of internationally recognised human rights standards. Marriage shall be entered into only with the free and full consent of the intending spouses

Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Article 16(2)

A woman’s right to choose a spouse and enter freely into marriage is central to her life and dignity, and equality as a human being.


People who are being forced into marriage face many problems.

Privately, they may feel frightened, lonely and withdraw into themselves.

This can lead onto mental and physical health problems including depression, eating disorders and self-harm.

They may develop poor attendance and performance at their workplace or educational institution.

Although both men and women are affected, the latter especially encounter many difficulties after the forced marriage occurs.

They are often apart from their family and can suffer domestic abuse at the hands of their husband or in-laws.

Those who have lived in an unconsented union for a long time may find it difficult to leave, especially if they have children.

They may experience financial problems, lack of family support and stigma in their community.

The victim may also worry about the consequences for their in-laws and their own family if they walk out on a forced marriage and report it to an authority.

Laws and helplines have been set up in the UK to help people in these situations.

Ten million girls under the age of 18 marry each year.

That’s around …

• 833,333 a month

• 192,307 a week

• 27,397 a day

• 19 every minute

Or, around one girl every three seconds.

One in every three girls in the developing world is married by the age of 18. One in seven marries before they reach the age of 15. In countries like Niger, Chad, Mali, Bangladesh, Guinea and the Central African Republic (CAR), the rate of early and forced marriage is 60 per cent and over. It is particularly high in South Asia (46 per cent) and in sub-Saharan Africa (38 per cent).

Countries with the highest rates of early and forced marriage in Europe include Georgia (17 per cent), Turkey (14 per cent) and Ukraine (10 per cent). At least 10 per cent of adolescents marry before the age of 18 in Britain and France.

Early and forced marriage in Africa

Some countries in Africa are amongst those with the highest proportion of early marriage, including Niger, Chad, Mali, Guinea, Central African Republic, Mozambique and Malawi. Sub-Saharan Africa has the second highest rate of early and forced marriage. 14.3 million girls in the region are married before they reach 18. Among the countries where the rate of early and forced marriage exceeds 70 per cent – Niger, Chad and Mali – adolescent fertility and maternal mortality rates are also high.

In countries where the legal age of marriage differs by sex, the age for women is always lower. In Benin, Cameroon, Gabon, Mali, Niger and the Democratic Republic of Congo, the legal age of marriage is 18 for males and only 15 for females.

According to the Convention on the Elimination on All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) – marriage before the age of 18 shouldn’t be allowed since children don’t have the ‘full maturity and capacity to act’.

The 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that marriage should be ‘entered only with the free and full consent of the intending spouses’. Where one of the parties getting married is under 18, consent cannot always be assumed to be ‘free and full’.

Why does early and forced marriage happen?

The causes of early and forced marriage are complex, interrelated and dependent on individual circumstances and context. But the practice is driven by these main factors:

• Gender inequality – women and girls often occupy a lower status in societies as a result of social and cultural traditions, attitudes, beliefs that deny them their rights and stifle their ability to play an equal role in their homes and communities

• Poverty – in families on a low income, girls may be viewed as an economic burden. The perception of girls’ potential to earn an income as comparatively poor pushes girls out of their homes and into marriage

• Negative traditional or religious practices – in many countries the importance of preserving family ‘honour’ and girls’ virginity is such that parents push their daughters into marriage well before they are ready. There is a belief that marriage safeguards against ‘immoral’ or ‘inappropriate behaviour’

• Failure to enforce laws – sometimes families are not even aware they are breaking the law. In some countries early marriage is so prevalent, prosecutions are seldom brought

• Conflicts, disasters and emergencies – disasters and emergencies increase economic pressures on households and many families that wouldn’t previously have considered early marriage turn to it as a last resort.

What are the consequences of early and forced marriage?

Early and forced marriage contributes to driving girls into a cycle of poverty and powerlessness. They are likely to experience:

• Violence, abuse and forced sexual relations – women who marry younger are more likely to be beaten and to believe that husbands can justify it

• Poor sexual and reproductive health – young married girls are more likely to contract HIV than their unmarried counterparts because of their greater sexual exposure, often with an older husband who by virtue of his age is more at risk of being HIV positive

• Illiteracy and lack of education – girls tend to drop out of school shortly before or when they get married. There is a commonplace view that once a girl is married she has crossed the threshold into adulthood and no longer needs an education.

What is the role of education in preventing early and forced marriage?

Even where education is available, the cost, quantity, quality and content of schooling has an impact on whether girls are forced to drop out and marry early. Plan Egypt found that poor quality schooling is behind some school drop-out – over-crowding, unqualified teachers and gender-based violence increase the viability of early marriage as an alternative option.

The expectation that girls will marry and not work impacts on the standard of education they receive – teachers may give them less attention and poorer access to learning materials than boys. The cost of a daughter’s education may not be viewed as a sound investment.

Supporting girls to complete a quality basic education is best done by focusing on girls’ rights. This means making sure learning environments are:

• Safe – that girls can get to and from school safely, are in a secure environment, their specific needs are met and penalties for teachers who sexually abuse pupils are enforced

• Accessible – that education opportunities are available and free, schools are built close to communities, there are separate sanitation facilities, parents and communities are involved in running schools and there are communications campaigns on the importance of girls’ education

• Inspiring – that girls are taught by qualified teachers (especially female ones), teachers are trained to understand girls’ rights and gender equality, curricula for girls are relevant to their needs, including teaching on sexual and reproductive health.

Mahad Ibrahim Mohamed is the proprietor of Nuraadin Schools in Hargeisa, Somaliland