Daniel Owens on the Dispatches programme about cousins marrying.
It is estimated that over 700 British Pakistani children per year are born with genetic difficulties which is directly attributed to inter-family marriages; the consanguineous marriage of cousins. Although the problem is worst among the British Pakistani community where more than 50% of marriages are between first cousins, the issue is present among other ethnic groups.
The medical risks are highly documented and children born through first cousin marriages are ten times more likely to suffer genetic disorders including birth defects, learning difficulties, deafness, blindness and metabolic disorders; a third of those affected die before the age of 5. Once they have become adults, those who are affected have an increased chance of miscarriage and infertility.
Channel 4’s Dispatches investigation, hosted by Tazeen Ahmad, found that despite over 70 British studies highlighting the risks of first cousin marriages – many people including those affected, families and religious leaders actually deny the risks. There are no public health campaigns, no doctors discuss it, there are no leaflets highlighting it and the majority of politicians steer well clear of it. Ann Cryer, former Labour MP for Keighley, West Yorkshire, suffered abuse from the Pakistani community for trying to bring the issue to the forefront. In the Dispatches documentary, Cryer said:
“It’s a public health issue and we deal with public health issues by raising awareness, by talking about subjects such as obesity, such as drug addiction, such as alcohol. But for some reason we’re told that we mustn’t talk about cousin marriages because this is a sensitive issue.”
Whilst some are reluctant to discuss the issue, there is some hope in Birmingham, where one GP surgery actively discourages the practice and has rounded up the support of local religious leaders who accept the risks involved.
Throughout the episode, Ahmad tried to show that it is not all Muslims who marry within the family, and even sought to highlight that it wasn’t just Muslim families. Many believe that the first cousin marriages are a result of an ancient tradition and are not carried out through love and desire to marry a cousin, but because of emotional blackmail perpetrated by the parents.
Research has shown that the number of cousin marriages has dramatically increased within the UK over the last 30 years, not only between British Pakistanis, but across the ethnic spectrum, including the British Bangladeshi and East African communities.
The documentary ‘Dispatches: When Cousins Marry’ was originally broadcast on Monday 23rd August 2010 and is currently available on 4oD.