Page last updated at 23:55 GMT, Monday, 6 April 2009 00:55 UK

More with learning disabilities forced to wed

By Poonam Taneja
BBC Asian Network

Woman in silhouette
Prospective spouses often do not know their betrothed has a learning disability

An increasing number of young people in the UK with learning disabilities are being forced into marriage by their own families.

Every year the Foreign and Commonwealth Office's Forced Marriage Unit deals with around 400 cases.

And a significant number involve people with learning disabilities.

The unit's head Sarah Russell said: "We don't have any firm statistics, but anecdotally we are seeing more and more cases of victims with learning disabilities as awareness around the whole issue of forced marriage is rising."

Disability charities, meanwhile, warn that forced marriage is being used as a way to ensure that children with disabilities will be looked after.

Rachael Clawson of the Ann Craft Trust believes that parents are worried about the future of their adult child.

"Often they're looking for a full time carer for that person," she said.

'Problem hidden'

The majority of cases reported involve families from India, Pakistan and Bangladesh.

She was asked to sign forms which she didn't understand. They actually turned out to be forms for her husband's visa
Rachael Clawson, Ann Craft Trust

Prospective spouses are often unaware of the disability until the wedding.

Kulbir Randawa, director of the Asian Family Counselling Service in west London, believes there is still a social stigma attached to disability within many Asian communities.

"They like to keep this kind of problem hidden. Sometimes it's important for the parent of the child to try and show that they've tried to get them married.

"If it doesn't work out, that's a different matter."

Occasionally, an unscrupulous spouse will marry a person with learning disabilities simply to obtain a British passport and live in the UK.

Ms Clawson describes the experience of one British woman.

"The woman had been told that she was going on holiday. She later reported she was forced into marriage, raped and returned to this country pregnant.

"She was asked to sign forms which she didn't understand. They actually turned out to be forms for her husband's visa. It was subsequently discovered that she'd actually been married to four other men."

A priority?

In another case, which went to the Court of Appeal, a young British man with autism was married by phone to a young woman who was to be brought to England from Bangladesh.

The court ruled that the marriage was not entitled to recognition in UK law and that consummation of the marriage would be tantamount to rape or indecent assault.

Rape, domestic violence and abandonment are common consequences of such marriages.

It is one of the reasons why Ms Russell believes helping victims with learning disabilities should now be a priority for the Forced Marriage Unit.

"We've actually identified it as an area where we want to work very closely the Department of Health, in order to get a better sense of the specific needs of people with learning disabilities who have been forced into marriage."

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