Vision / Society and communities / Drawing back the veil

Society and communities

Drawing back the veil

If you think about forced marriage you probably visualise a young woman being forced to marry against her will, perhaps in a foreign country, possibly to a much older man. While some cases do fit this stereotype, there are also many that are rather different in nature.

What is often forgotten is that some people who are forced to marry not only have not given their consent, but cannot. This is because some people with learning disabilities do not have the capacity to understand what marriage is or to choose to get married. When people with learning disabilities are forced to marry in such circumstances, the consequences can be devastating, including physical and sexual assault, emotional harm and abandonment.

Dr Rachael Clawson is Assistant Professor in Social Work at the University of Nottingham, and the lead researcher of a major study that is looking at forced marriage of people with learning disabilities. Her work in this area began in 2009 with the Government’s Forced Marriage Unit. It found that, among people with learning disabilities, men were as vulnerable to forced marriage as women.

Her current work has found that ‘forced marriage’ does not necessarily have malevolent origins – many families would not recognise what they were doing as forced marriage. “For many parents, by far the biggest motivator is to find their vulnerable relative a carer. They believe they are doing right, by finding someone to care for them before they no longer can.”

Professor Rachel Fyson, co-researcher, adds: “Because of this the terminology of a ‘forced marriage’ doesn’t always feel quite right. Parents may have the best of intentions, but should be asking for support from their local authority.”

"For many families, by far the biggest motivator is to find their vulnerable relative a carer."
Dr Rachael Clawson

Other drivers range from social perceptions to financial security, and simply the belief that marriage is a rite of passage for all.

Social mores and fears also come into play. Dr Clawson found: “In some communities, having a disabled child carries huge stigma, with families hiding themselves away. They may be unaware or reluctant to access services that can help them. In addition, practitioners may not know or understand a particular community, and are afraid of being seen as racist or insensitive if they raise questions about a marriage.”

In 2010 Dr Clawson wrote multi-agency guidelines that directly informed the government statutory guidelines published in 2014. These are used every day by social workers and care professionals.

Together with Professor Fyson, she has raised awareness still further with the ‘My Marriage, My Choice’ project, with a range of free online resources and multi-language videos. Neil Day of the Forced Marriage Unit wrote: “We are already seeing the impact the resources can have in helping to educate families and practitioners.”

Dr Clawson has met with the Attorney General and the Crown Prosecution Service to discuss giving guidance to prosecutors, and has twice submitted evidence to the House of Lords’ select committee on forced marriage. Most recently she met with the Home Secretary and Minister for Crime, Safeguarding and Vulnerability to discuss Government response to these issues.

Forced marriages: motives

Prime motives for forced marriage that are specific to people with learning disabilities include:

  • Obtaining a carer for the person with a learning disability
  • Obtaining physical assistance for ageing parents
  • Obtaining financial security for the person with a learning disability
  • Believing the marriage will somehow ‘cure’ the disability
  • A belief that marriage is a ‘rite of passage’ for all young people
  • Mistrust of the ‘system’, mistrust of external (eg social care/health) carers
  • A fear that younger siblings may be seen as undesirable if older sons or daughters are not already married
  • Often seen as the only option or the right option (or both) – no alternative


Dr Rachael Clawson

Dr Rachael Clawson (pictured) is an Assistant Professor in Social Work, School of Sociology and Social Policy. Rachael is a qualified social worker who has previously worked for local authority social services departments and the Ann Craft Trust, a charity specialising in the protection of children and adults with learning disabilities.

Rachel Fyson

Rachel Fyson is a Professor of Social Work and Director of the Centre for Social Work in the School of Sociology and Social Policy. Her research focuses on adult social care services and adult safeguarding.

More impact case studies

A year on: working class women and work during the Covid-19 pandemic

Read More

An academic working in government: reflections from a Chief Scientific Adviser

Read More

Cities and communities after the pandemic

Read More