Aimed at frontline practitioners such as GPs, school nurses, midwives, and A&E staff, new government guidelines provide practical advice on how to recognise the warning signs, and what to do if a patient discloses that they have been, or are about to be, forced to marry.
Each year approximately 300 cases of forced marriage are reported to the government's Forced Marriage Unit. But many more come to the attention of the police, social care services, health, education and voluntary organisations.
Evidence suggests many victims assume that health professionals cannot help them and they may not feel confident in expressing their concerns. Feedback from health professionals is they would like to do more but aren't always sure how.
Consultations with health professionals may be one of the few occasions when the victim is unsupervised by a family member and by being aware of the warning signs and making routine enquiries, they may encourage victims to speak out.
The guidelines, which are a joint initiative by the Foreign & Commonwealth Office (FCO), Home Office and the Department of Health, detail cases such as Sanita, who came to the UK following a forced marriage. While attending a local hospital to tend to injuries that were inflicted by her husband, the consultant was able to speak to Sanita alone and she told him everything. To this day, Sanita still genuinely believes the consultant saved her life.
On launching the guidelines, FCO Minister Lord Triesman said: "Since 1999, the government has been providing consular assistance to British and dual nationals forced into marriage overseas. As part of our ongoing commitment to tackle forced marriage we have, today, launched guidelines for health professionals which complements our previous guidelines for social workers, police officers and education professionals. I hope that this new guidance will allow health professionals to have the necessary tools to equip themselves to deal with issues on forced marriage."
Home Office Minister Baroness Scotland said: "Forced marriage is a violation of internationally recognised human rights standards and can never be justified, including on religious or cultural grounds. It is terrible for those women, children and men who find themselves in an often violent and abusive situation against their will. The government is determined to help the victims of forced marriages and health professionals form part of the crucial frontline work that plays such an important role in saving lives and reducing serious harm."
Public Health Minister Caroline Flint said: "Forced marriage affects children and adults as well as men and women from a wide range of communities. An interview with a health professional may be the first and only opportunity victims have to tell someone about what is happening to them.
"This new guidance will help health professionals recognise the warning signs of forced marriage, understand the danger faced by victims and respond to their needs sensitively and effectively."
Dr Peter Carter, General Secretary of the Royal College of Nursing (RCN), said: "The RCN welcomes the launch of these guidelines. Health professionals need sound direction and effective support if they are to deliver the best possible care for vulnerable patients. We will look with interest to see how the guidelines are practically implemented and further developed."