Dentists have been encouraged to take action where they suspect one of their patients may be a victim of forced marriage.
New guidelines aimed at frontline practitioners offer advice on how to recognise warning signs and what to do if a patient discloses that they have been, or are about to be, forced to marry.
Each year about 300 cases of forced marriage are reported to the government’s Forced Marriage Unit. But ministers believe many more may come to the attention of the police, social care services, health, education and voluntary organisations.
According to the government, victims often assume that health professionals cannot help them and they may not feel confident in expressing their concerns.
It believes consultations with health professionals may be one of the few occasions when the victim is unsupervised by a family member. By making dentists and doctors aware of the warning signs and encouraging them to make routine enquiries, it hopes victims may be encouraged to speak out.
The guidance, Dealing with cases of forced marriage, gives a number of scenarios a health professional can be confronted with and outline what action to undertake and who to contact. In particular, it urges dentists to watch out for ‘facial injuries consistent with domestic abuse’.
It also warns that families may go to extreme lengths to track down women who flee forced marriages – including using ‘organised networks’ who may have access to dental records.
It states: ‘There may be occasions when professionals unwittingly give confidential information to those searching for the woman.’
The guidelines, a joint initiative by the Foreign Office, Home Office and the Department of Health, say forced marriage should be regarded as a form of domestic abuse and, depending on age, child abuse.
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.’
The guidance can be viewed at www.fco.gov.uk/forcedmarriage.
By Andy Tate, Parliamentary Correspondent