The forced marriage problem is much worse than ministers feared

How fear of racism meant forced marriage went unchallenged in Britain

How fear of racism meant forced marriage went unchallenged in Britain

"It was his choice to have the children," victim Faizah remembered. "I didn't want what came with marriage but I had to do it. He first raised his hand to me just after I gave birth."

Forced marriage meant Faizah was a de facto victim of multiple rape and domestic violence. Yet many social workers treat it as a sensitive cultural issue rather than as abuse, according to lawyers and charities. Perhaps this is why the number of people desperate enough to turn to the courts for help is at least double the amount anticipated by the government.

Forced marriage protection orders, introduced in 2008, were a big step forward for a country which had not until then really accepted this was a problem for the state. The orders "require a change in the behaviour of a person or persons trying to force another person into marriage". You can apply either before or after the forced marriage has taken place.

A parliamentary answer has revealed there have been many more of these made than expected since they were introduced in 2008. At the time it was estimated there would be about 50 a year – or around 300 in the six years which have passed since its introduction. As things stood at September 2014, we've now learned, there have been 762.

The real number may be even higher. Reporting errors by the courts might be shielding the true picture, experts fear. And the scale of the problem could be far greater, says Rachel Holman, a lawyer who has secured about 40 protection orders for her clients. The 762 figure is "only a reflection of a very small snapshot of the number of victims," she says. "They're the victims that have come forward or been identified, but we know there are thousands who are not coming forward, or not identified, or don't acknowledge it. It looks like a massive number but really it's just the tip of the iceberg."

That's because in many cases the victim finds it easier to protect themselves by leaving town, escaping not just their family but also the community that heaped pressure on them to comply with something they didn't want. That is often the easiest solution. Choosing to stick it out, and relying on the courts for protection, is a courageous step. Understandably it's one that not everyone feels is in their best interest to make.

Even before the coalition's austerity drive began it was clear that demand for forced marriage protection orders was far higher than expected. Now spending cuts have started to bite, hitting the legal aid budget and preventing many from resorting to them. Vulnerable people who need help are being denied it because of the cutbacks – and none of them are in the 762 figure, either.

Those who earn more than £733 a month are no longer eligible for assistance, meaning even a part-time job will be enough to deny many any kind of help. "There should be a scheme whereby if you're in that kind of position, you should get legal aid regardless of your circumstances," Holman says. That is the case for parents when children are being removed and there are legal proceedings, after all. Deductions for rent, mortgage, children etc will help lower the cost, but for those with no children – and generally most of those affected don't already have children and are living with their parents – these benefits may not apply.

Natasha Rattu, of the forced marriage charity Karma Nirvana, says the big problem is an attitude one. It's hard not to see parallels with the child sexual exploitation headache as she describes the situation with forced marriage. "We still do battle with agencies' mindset that this is a cultural practice, something that's culturally acceptable," she says. "Social workers are trained to work with families and to work with parents, whereas in a case of forced marriage that is the thing that will increase their risk. They need to make sure they're dealing with it as abuse."

Last year the government criminalised forced marriage for the first time. That was a big step which went much further than before. Lawyers expect this will have a deterrent effect, as it will be up to the victim to decide whether to send their family members to prison. It's suspected most won't.

A government spokesperson said: "Forced marriage is a tragedy for each and every victim, and its very nature means that many cases go unreported. The UK is a world-leader in the fight to stamp out this harmful practice, with the government’s Forced Marriage Unit helping to tackle it both in the UK and overseas."

The spokesperson said that that last year's criminalisation of forced marriage sends a "clear message that this brutal practice is totally unacceptable and will not be tolerated in the UK", before adding: "But we know that legislation alone is not enough – that is why we remain focused on prevention, support, and protection for victims and those at risk of becoming victims.

"Frontline professionals have received additional awareness training, enabling them to use both civil remedies and criminal sanctions effectively, and the Forced Marriage Unit has an extensive outreach programme targeting both professionals and victims."

The real significance of the government's changes, Rattu believes, is in helping give social services clearer direction in treating forced marriage for what it really is. "We are seeing some changes with respect to growing confidence," she says. But more needs to be done.

Look at domestic violence in the 1970s, Holman says. People said it shouldn't be a criminal offence because it went on behind closed doors and was therefore nobody's business. The mental realisation that forced marriage is just as unacceptable hasn't yet collectively clicked. Instead, fear of offending continues to dominate: "They walk around on eggshells because they're scared of being racist."