Scores of young people with learning disabilities are being forced into marriages, The Independent on Sunday can reveal.
More than one in five of the forced marriages reported to the Government involve disabled people, but experts fear that the true scale of the problem could be far worse.
Last week, senior police officers, lawyers, social workers and campaign groups held urgent talks in London as the scale of the problem emerged.
The Foreign Office's Forced Marriage Unit dealt with 400 cases last year – and more than 80 of these involved people with learning disabilities.
Support groups believe that the stigma attached to disability in some ethnic communities, together with social and cultural isolation, is adding to the problem. They warn that forced marriage is being used as a way to ensure that children with disabilities will be looked after as ageing parents struggle to cope. A person with learning disabilities may also be seen as biddable by foreigners in search of a visa.
The majority of cases reported involve families from Pakistan, Bangladesh and India. Spouses are not always told about the disability and only discover the truth when they first meet, often at the wedding, or even after.
Rape, domestic violence and abandonment are common consequences of such marriages as opportunities to escape or seek help can be limited, according to support groups.
A growing awareness of the problem has resulted in scores of community workers coming forward after a series of court cases brought under the Human Rights Act which ensures the right to marry freely.
And many care workers are reluctant to oppose the forced marriages for fear of being branded "culturally insensitive"
Mandy Sanghera, a social worker with Voice UK, a charity which helps people with learning disabilities, believes that the emphasis must be on protecting vulnerable individuals rather than on the communities which are failing them.
"In 15 years I have worked with more than 100 people with learning disabilities forced into marriage, from south Asian, African and Middle Eastern communities. Forget the political correctness: these human rights abuses are very real and need to be stopped," she said.
Ms Sanghera worked with Rani, a woman in her twenties with learning difficulties and mental health problems. Rani's mother felt under pressure from the community to arrange for her to marry an Indian man who needed a British passport. Her mother decided this would be a good match, believing that no one else would marry her.
After a year of marriage, Rani suffered a miscarriage and it was discovered that Rani's husband was physically abusing her and stealing her benefits to send to his family. But her family pressured her to stay with him for the sake of honour.
According to Saghir Alam, of Equality 2025, the Government's disability advisory body, social services must become more culturally sensitive so parents do not feel that marriage is the only long-term care option. Asian families are consistently less likely to seek or receive outside help.
"The Government's social care reforms must involve these communities, or we will never solve this shocking problem," he said.
Teertha Gupta, a barrister who specialises in forced marriages, believes most families are just trying to do their best for their children. He said: "These are generally families from law-abiding communities who think this very old fashioned and illegal practice is their only choice."Reuse content