UK: Forced marriage plea to schools

BBC News
New guidance is being published urging schools to identify signs of forced marriages ahead of the holidays.
The guidance comes as an official report raises questions about how some schools and councils have failed to act on suspicions or evidence of abuse. The report calls on schools to play a greater preventative role, saying some are clearly reluctant to get involved. The government's Forced Marriage Unit (FMU) says it has received 770 calls for help this year - up 16% on 2008.
Experts say the coming month will be critical because there is growing evidence that abusive families use the school summer holidays to coerce daughters and sons to marry abroad.

The new guidance published by the FMU urges teachers to be aware of signs of a possible forced marriage because school or college is often the only place where the potential victim can speak freely.

'Punished for shaming my family'

The document also provides guidance to doctors, police, social workers and other community workers.

Foreign Office minister Chris Bryant told the BBC that professionals needed to have their "eyes wide open".

"There are key times of the year, particularly if an elder sibling has married very young or suddenly left school, if a youngster is self-harming or if they are constantly being accompanied by parents, even to a doctor's surgery," he told Radio 4's Today programme. "These may be clear signs that there is a problem."

"I should make it absolutely clear there is no culture and there is no religion in which forced marriage should be acceptable or indeed is acceptable," he added.

"I know there are maybe some people who think this is an issue about Islam - it's not. Islam does not recommend or accept forced marriage. Marriage in every religion has to be freely and openly consented to."

Schools criticised

However, according to separate research for the government, also published on Thursday, some local bodies are not doing enough to intervene.

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The report for the Department for Children, Schools and Families details criticisms of some schools and education authorities.

Critics say some are "non-responsive" and failing to intervene as they dismiss forced marriage as a "cultural issue" or fear a backlash from powerful figures in minority communities.

"In all areas we noted a variation among key partners in the importance they attached to responding to forced marriage," says the report.

"One respondent talked about how it was precisely those cases of children [going missing from education] that showed the signs of forced marriage that were less likely to be followed up in schools as this was seen as an issue specific to the culture of the child."

Jasvinder Sanghera of Karma Nirvana, a national campaign group against forced marriages, urged public sector workers, and particularly teachers, to act on suspicions.

"This is not something you must be culturally sensitive about," she said. "This is a child abuse issue, and you must treat it in that way and follow your child protection procedures. Do not turn a blind eye".

The Forced Marriage Unit, run jointly by the Home Office and Foreign Office, received 1,600 reports last year - and intervened in 420 actual cases.

Overall, there are estimated to be at least 5,000 cases of forced marriage, but it is impossible to know for certain.

In some cases, a specialist British team launched secret rescue missions to repatriate victims held captive by their families abroad.

The courts have also made 36 forced marriage prevention orders, a recently created power designed to prevent people being taken abroad against their will.

02 July 2009

By Dominic Casciani

Source: BBC News