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Lifting the veil of silence

When students fear being forced into marriage, school staff are there to help - whether with a sympathetic ear or by finding a safe house. It's all about giving the children choices, one safeguarding officer tells Adi Bloom

When students fear being forced into marriage, school staff are there to help - whether with a sympathetic ear or by finding a safe house. It's all about giving the children choices, one safeguarding officer tells Adi Bloom

When Farzana turned up at South Birmingham College, it was, ostensibly, to enrol. Within minutes, however, the 19-year-old was sitting in Jane Linsell's office, brushing away tears.

Along with her name, Farzana had given the enrolment officer some extra information: she was there against the wishes of her family. Her parents, she said, were planning to force her into marriage.

"This is where I know our training works," says Linsell, safeguarding officer at the college. "Because it was the enrolment officer - an administrator, not even a tutor - who brought the student to me."

It is the summer holiday, and Linsell sits in the college's deserted canteen, nursing a cup of coffee. The 58-year-old began her teaching career as a floristry lecturer at Solihull College, before moving into pastoral support and student services. She arrived at South Birmingham seven years ago, since when she and her staff have increasingly become aware of the warning signs that often precede a forced marriage. "You hear students talking about, `Oh, they're going away', `They're going on holiday', `They're going to meet a cousin and they don't really want to go'," she says. "But lots of families go abroad - we're a very multicultural society now.

"The more serious cases - there will be particular things. Students who say they're going on holiday in the middle of term, and they're not sure when they're coming back. They have flights booked. They're being stopped from coming to college, and so on."

It can, however, be difficult to gauge the urgency of a case. Often, she says, parents will hold the threat of marriage over their offspring, in an effort to stem nascent teenage rebellion. "One of the questions I ask early on is: have you got a boyfriend? Because quite often, they've got involved in a relationship that the families don't approve of. You try and gauge where it's coming from."

Sixteen-year-old Najma did have a boyfriend. Her parents disapproved; they announced that they were going to arrange a marriage for her instead. And so she, too, eventually found her way to Linsell's office.

Linsell would not instruct a pupil to break up with her boyfriend. "But we're fairly straight-talking about it," she says. "We'll say to them: well, all families have rules and regulations. It's no different from other teenagers, really. The advice I always give to them is: you're 16 or 17, you're living with your parents, you have to respect their rules. You're not helping yourself if you're breaking all the rules. My advice is that you need to try and meet your family halfway."

Farzana, however, had no boyfriend. As she sat in Linsell's office, her fear was almost tangible. Her family, she said, had forbidden her from leaving home. They did not want her out in the wider community at all. "Quite often, physical appearances will tell you how distressed someone is," says Linsell. "I think she knew she wasn't going to study (at South Birmingham). But she knew she could talk to us.

"Some students will tell you everything. Some won't tell you anything. You've got to respect their boundaries. It takes an awful lot of time to work with a young person. We might have a lot of silences, while they're digesting what we tell them. They might go away and come back later."

Najma, for example, came back almost every day for three weeks. She wanted to talk, but she also wanted to hear her options reiterated.

Culture of respect

The word "choice" comes up repeatedly. At every step, Linsell stresses, she is simply presenting pupils with choices, making sure they are aware of them, helping them to consider them.

Linsell herself grew up in the care system, leaving school early to become a dental nurse. She returned to education at the age of 37, training as a floristry lecturer.

After qualifying as a teacher, she went on to pursue a master's in education management. But her work in child protection only began once she arrived at South Birmingham. "Because of my background, I became very interested in helping people with difficult backgrounds," Linsell says. "It makes all the difference. It's about empathy. While I've never been in a forced-marriage situation, the key thing is that (the students) need support. It doesn't matter what it is: abuse or forced marriage. I'm interested in the neglect, and forced marriage is part of that.

"Coming from my perspective, as a white person, I'm very careful about respecting people's culture. But I also need to be very clear about choice. Because each family is made up differently. That's every family, no matter what background."

Farzana, however, had already made her decision. So Linsell rang the government's Forced Marriage Unit, and together they explained the various ways of preventing a marriage from going ahead. "You do the practical bits," she says. "You're saying: these are some of the things we can do, just in case, to keep you safe. None of it is done in a forced way. We're just saying: here are the options, these are the people you can talk to. Because it's such a delicate thing."

With pupils under the age of 18, the issue is one of child protection, and Linsell is compelled to alert other authorities. Najma, therefore, was introduced to her local police force's vulnerable persons officer. "Students come to you and tell you these things, and then you have to say, `I'm sorry, but actually I can't keep this information.' That's very hard. But (you can say): `They're not going to talk to your family; we're not going to talk to your family. They'll only know what you tell them.'"

Farzana was over 18, however, which made things easier. Because she had left vital medication at home, Linsell arranged to meet her at college the following day. Meanwhile, she contacted the charity Women's Aid to arrange a place at a hostel. And then she simply waited.

Flight to safety

Linsell arrived at college at 7am the following morning; Farzana was already there. The previous evening, Farzana had again tried to tell her parents that she wanted to attend college. They were adamant that she should not go. And so she felt she had no choice. While her family slept, she packed her belongings into two bin bags. As she struggled to carry them both, a police car stopped beside her, to find out what was happening. She simply explained that she was coming to college, and they offered her a lift. By the time Linsell met her, she was visibly terrified of what would happen when her family discovered her absence.

"I do say to them, `Is there somebody in the family you can talk to? A sister? An aunt?' And, quite often, they do. Because not everyone in the family will go along with those values. If you think there's someone you can talk to, do it calmly. Just express your wishes."

Using another family member as mediator, some students eventually discuss the situation with their parents. This can lead to an agreement to postpone the wedding, at least until they have finished college. Others have gone to live with a sympathetic member of their extended family while they complete their studies. "It's about empowering them to have those conversations," Linsell says. "Our role is about empowering them to talk to someone in the family, rather than painting this big, black picture that everyone's bad."

Najma, however, decided that she wanted to leave her family home. The vulnerable persons officer had taken her fingerprints and photograph. Now, the police also logged her passport number, to ensure that her parents would not be able to force her to leave the country. Then they offered her a place in a safe house. "By and large, it's about choice," Linsell reiterates. "They need to know what their options are. Whatever they choose to do, we'll work with them."

Farzana, too, was unequivocal: she wanted to be taken somewhere safe. To guarantee this safety, Women's Aid did not tell Linsell where Farzana would be staying. Instead, they simply gave the safeguarding officer some instructions: put Farzana on a train to Coventry. Linsell therefore had to make arrangements for a car to take them to the station, and make sure that Farzana made it safely on to the train.

The charity also gave Linsell a phone number. Once Farzana reached Coventry, she would hail a taxi, ring the number, and pass the phone to the taxi driver. The hostel workers would tell the driver where to take her; no one else would know. "I had to say to her: I don't know where you're going. I don't know where you're going to stay," Linsell says. "I don't know what the future is. But I do know that there are people there who will help you. That's all I can tell you."

The aim of all these precautions was to ensure that Farzana's family could not track her down and force her to return home. Despite them, however, there is no guarantee of safety.

When Saida came to see her, Linsell helped to find her a place in a safe house. But several months later Saida's brother contacted the 17-year-old on her mobile phone, telling her that their mother had been admitted to hospital with a heart attack. Saida immediately returned home and rushed to the hospital, only to find that her brother had been lying. Once out of the hostel's protective environment, she succumbed to emotional pressure and returned to her family.

Linsell is circumspect, however, about what constitutes success and what failure. Despite being offered a place at a safe house, Najma decided to go ahead with the marriage that her family had been planning. She had spoken to her parents, she said, and they had agreed that she could stay in Birmingham after the wedding and continue at college. But, Linsell says, she considers this a successful outcome.

"She'd made that decision, and she appeared to be quite clear about it: I'm going to give it a go. I'm going to do this. But, for a young woman, that's quite a big thing, isn't it, getting married? Suddenly coming home, and you've got a husband. Your life and your future have changed. I'm not even sure they always understand what it means, what marriage means.

"Talking to students about a thing like that is very difficult. You really are encroaching on personal space. You don't know what their knowledge is, about relationships and sexual relationships. You have to tread very carefully. I ask a lot of questions, and I try to get a feel for what's happening."

When Farzana reached the hostel, she rang Linsell to let her know that she had arrived safely, and to thank her for all her help. That was the last Linsell heard of her. "I won't ever know what happened to that young woman. But that was a success story, I guess. She walked away from her whole family with two bags of her belongings, and trusted us to get help."

Linsell looks straight ahead now, and speaks slowly, but certainly. "You can get caught up in the emotion of it, and it is very hard. But, when you're working with agencies, it's about managing your little part in that. I think that's the bit you have to hold on to: that you've played your part, and you've done it as professionally and as well as you can. That's all you can do."

Pupils' names, and some identifying details, have been changed.

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