Forced Marriage and COVID-19

Assessing the Impact of COVID-19 and COVID-related Decision-Making on Forced Marriage Vulnerability in the UK

Part of the COVID-19 research and innovation supported by UKRI

Project Findings

Our project had 13 key findings regarding the impact of Covid-19 and Covid-related restrictions on people vulnerable to, or already experiencing, a forced marriage in the UK. These mainly related to England and Wales, but we did find some data from Scotland and Northern Ireland. You can read our full report here. We found that:

  • Calls to forced marriage (FM) helplines provided by Karma Nirvana (KN) and the UK government Forced Marriage Unit (FMU) decreased during the first lockdown. However, they decreased further in subsequent lockdowns.
  • There is not one particular restriction (for example, “lockdown”, quarantine after travelling, school closures) that has affected rates, and the risk of, FM, but the package of restrictions taken together have.
  • Staff at schools are not calling the KN or FMU helplines directly very often, but schools seem to be providing networks of support which lead to other people ringing (both victims themselves, and other concerned parties).
  • The FMU plays an official “duty to notify” role, being contacted by those stakeholders with statutory safeguarding and/or reporting (for FM and FGM) duties. However, many other stakeholders do not contact the FMU, or only contact it infrequently. Indeed, we can say that KN and the FMU (and Family Courts in England and Wales) are dealing with almost entirely separate constituencies of people at risk.
  • Despite travel restrictions, people were still taken abroad for the purpose of FM in 2020. Although this happened to fewer people than in pre-pandemic years, it was still a significant number of people, and the likelihood of FM does not seem to have been impacted by changes to the number of flights entering or leaving the country.
  • Forced Marriage Protection Orders (FMPOs) showed very different patterns of increase/decrease during periods of lockdown between two different age groups (children and adults) in England and Wales. This further suggests that children were increasingly invisible in the pandemic.
  • Remote working impacted people working in this area both positively, as it meant service providers could speak to more victims and stakeholder partners, and negatively, as there are significant issues with privacy for those working from home, and with accessing support from interpreters.
  • Service providers dealt with more calls and longer calls than before. This, alongside workingfrom-home when that was mandated, had a knock-on impact on the well-being of service providers.
  • Helplines kept going through lockdowns/restrictions, with – in general – fewer cases of FM, and more of domestic abuse to handle. Front-line police services carried on in-person, but with fewer FM cases to deal with.
  • Lockdowns and similar restrictions saw increased victim isolation, which put victims at more risk.
  • Victims relied more on helplines because they could not access other forms of help.
  • Staff at KN’s helpline noted that they were providing on-going support for much longer than prepandemic.
  • Covid-related restrictions brought back historic trauma for some survivors of forced marriage, particularly where they had been forced to “stay-at-home” by those forcing them to marry, or the people they were forced to marry as part of on-going control and abuse in the relationship. Helplines saw an increase in calls from distressed survivors of historical FM. This also suggests future surges in calls if similar restrictions are ever re-imposed, not just of historic FM, but of abuse experienced in the last two years of restrictions.

We continue to research in this area. We recently worked on understanding risk and prevalence of forced marriage in Nottinghamshire. Our findings have led to several questions being asked in the Houses of Parliament. We have submitted evidence based on this project to several Select Committee calls for evidence. Our evidence has been cited by the International Labour Organisation and Walk Free in their Global Estimates of Slavery, and by the Special Rapporteur for Contemporary Forms of Slavery.

Project Summary

COVID-19 and COVID-related decisions are having significant impacts on children and adults vulnerable to, and already experiencing, the crime of forced marriage. Our mixed-methods project will chart and understand this impact, inform evaluation of the UK’s response to Covid-19, and shape on-going policy regarding the UK’s pandemic response. We consider the uneven economic and social impact of the pandemic, and the ethical dimensions of unequal impacts of Covid-related decision-making, on this vulnerable group, and seek to impact how government, civil society and the voluntary sector support vulnerable people.

The UK government’s Forced Marriage Unit (FMU) and the charity Karma Nirvana (KN) (which provides a national forced marriage helpline) have warned about the risks of the pandemic for forced marriage in the UK. We designed this project with both organisations, and will work with them to analyse quantitative and qualitative data about the impact of Covid-19 on those at risk of, or experiencing, forced marriage; and to record and analyse the challenges faced in the pandemic, evaluate the efficacy of mitigation strategies, and formulate new policies and practises for protection and response.

Within the first 12 months, we will have co-created an accurate account of the economic and social impact of Covid-19 and Covid-related decision-making on victims of forced marriage, and the ethical implications of unequal impacts. We will then continue to chart the changing risk environment, while co-developing policy reports and recommendations for the UK government (including FMU), NGO practice responses (including KN), and other stakeholders, to improve the on-going response to COVID-19 and build community resilience.

Latest Updates:

  • April 2022 – the project officially ended. Our final reports were published. These include our “What We Know Now” Report and our Data Report. Date from our project was deposited with the UK Data Service (published August 2022). This includes data on the impact of the pandemic on staff at forced marriage; data collated from Family Courts in England and Wales; and data underpinning our Key Events Timeline. Work on finalising transcripts of interviews, and on academic articles, continues. We also published an additional report in August 2022 on calls to forced marriage helplines.
  • March 2022 – we have been preparing our final reports for publication.
  • February 2022 – we have been preparing our final reports for publication.
  • January 2022 – we have been conducting more qualitative interviews, and sharing our findings with key stakeholders.
  • December 2021 – We have been working on further Case Studies (including of India) and on a report on the quantative data collected so far.
  • November 2021 – We have published three Case Studies (Pakistan; Bangladesh; and Somalia) and hosted a public talk with updates from our project so far.
  • October 2021 – We welcomed our newest team-member, Rebecca on board. We held a stakeholder workshop, which was very successful. We continue to work on Case Studies, analysis of interviews, and our Data Report.
  • September 2021 – We have been working on a series of Case Studies based on data released by the Forced Marriage Unit in July. We also said goodbye (for now!) to Fiona, and wish her all the best for her future work in this field.
  • August 2021 – We have been working on a further update on data from Karma Nirvana and planing our third stakeholder workshop. Our analysis suggests cases of forced marriage decreased from October 2020 to March 2021.
  • July 2021 – We published three reports – on the 2020 data from the Forced Marriage Unit; on applications for Forced Marriage Protection Orders in 2020; and on the impact of the pandemic on call-handlers at the national helpline for forced marriage.
  • June 2021 – We have been working on analysis of the impact of the pandemic on Forced Marriage Protection Orders, the latest data from Karma Nirvana, and the findings of our pilot stakeholder survey. We published a report on the likely impact of international travel restrictions on victims and survivors of forced marriage.
  • May 2021 – We held our second stakeholder workshop, and welcomed a UoN Politics and IR Q-Step student to the team to look at data on Forced Marriage Protection Orders.
  • April 2021 – We published a snap-shot of findings from Karma Nirvana’s helpline data, and been piloting a survey and interviews with Karma Nirvana.
  • March 2021 – This month we were working on our “What We Know One Year On” report, marking one year since the UK went into lockdown.
  • February 2021 – A year after the WHO-China Joint Mission on COVID-19 warned “much of the global community is not yet ready…to implement the measures that have been employed to contain COVID-19” so far, we held out first stakeholder workshop, and started analysing help-line data from Karma Nirvana.
  • January 2021 – A year after the WHO declared COVID-19 to be “a public health emergency of international concern”, we have been busy co-designing a stakeholder survey, and mapping key stakeholders to approach.
  • December 2020 – We started work on understanding how COVID-19 had affected people working to support those at risk of forced marriage, and the impact of COVID-related decisions such as “stay at home” on survivors.
  • November 2020 – First steps – we hired the Research Fellow for the Team. We began mapping key stakeholders and collecting available quantitative data.
  • October 2020 – The team secured funding on the last day of October, 2020, following a busy few weeks of co-designing the project and writing the application. We had already submitted evidence on this issue to the Joint Committee on Human Rights.

“School closures, isolation from community networks and support services, lockdown, and ongoing economic pressures imposed by the pandemic increase risks of forced marriage; reduce access to support; and exacerbate abuse experienced by those already in forced marriage”.

Helen McCabe, Principal Investigator

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