04/13/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

sold into slavery

The chilling story of a young disabled woman, who was sold for £8000 in a sham marriage to a Chinese man hoping to enter the United Kingdom, is unfortunately not an isolated case. Her brother, Michael Wright, from Wiltshire, pleaded guilty to immigration and perjury offences. His sister, who has learning difficulties, is now in the care of social services, after the register office in Berkshire, where she was due to marry, was raided in August.

What is unusual about this case, however, is that forced and sham marriage experts believe it is the first case involving a white British national to come to light. Racist organisations, such as the British National Party, have made much of the cases of forced marriage that have come to light in the Asian community. And it is true that most cases do involve disabled men and women from the Asian sub-continent, but an increasing number are coming to light from other regions, including the Middle East, Eastern Europe and Africa.

The plight of the young disabled men and women caught up in forced marriage is pretty severe. It's thought that around 10-15% of all forced marriages involve people with learning difficulties - who often cannot give consent. So they are not only coerced into marriage, but are then forced to have sex without consent - rape, by any other word. Many go on to have children - who can also then suffer in turn. Often the partner, who has married to obtain a visa or has been paid to marry the disabled person, can turn violent. Many, such as a young Chinese woman whose case I featured two years ago in my investigations on hate crime, was treated as a domestic slave - and finally killed by her husband's jealous lover. There are not only domestic violence implications, but child protection ones too - making the marriage a minefield of cross-cutting, inter-agency responsibilities.

The forced marriage expert, Mandeep Sanghera has campaigned for nearly twenty years against forced marriage. She has seen some change within the Asian community, with friends and family highlighting cases that cause them concern, but says it's a complex issue. "They are being abused", she says, but often for mixed motives. Many families want disabled people to lead a "normal life", and want them to marry and have children. They are also trying to provide a carer for their disabled child, for when they are no longer able to look after the disabled family member themselves. They want to look after their own, she points out, but in making these arrangements, are exploiting not only the spouse who often has no idea they are marrying a disabled person, but the disabled person themselves, who is coerced into marriage and sex.

The organisation Respond, which works with people with learning difficulties in abusive situations, has also campaigned for years to uncover this issue. "The problem for us", a spokeswoman says, "is that there is nowhere for the spouse to go. It's hard to support them to leave when there's no place of safety for them. There is zero specialist provision for women with learning difficulties."