`Forced marriage isn't cultural, it's abuse'

5th June 2015 at 01:00
Schools can play a vital role in combating so-called honour-based crimes by supporting and informing pupils, a sixth-former writes

Being forced to marry a stranger: it sounds barbaric, doesn't it? Relationships and marriages are complicated enough when you've known the person for years and you're head over heels in love.

Yet the practice of forced marriage is prevalent within the UK, so much so that in 2013 the Forced Marriage Unit - set up by the government to combat such crimes - dealt with 1,302 cases. Schools need to be aware of the issue and how they can help.

First, it is vital to note that a forced marriage and an arranged marriage are not one and the same. A forced marriage is one that is conducted without the valid consent of one or both parties, and where duress is a factor. An arranged marriage, on the other hand, is dependent on the consent of both parties.

Let us also be aware that, although the vast majority of victims are female (82 per cent), almost one in five is male. And, shockingly, 15 per cent are under the age of 15.

Hurt by the ones you love

The tragedy is that this is only the tip of the iceberg. Forced marriage falls under the umbrella term of "honour-based abuse", whereby family, and occasionally the local community, act to ensure the honourable status of the group. These crimes are often difficult to comprehend because victims are hurt by the people who are supposed to love them the most.

Crimes that fall under the bracket of honour-based abuse include female genital mutilation (FGM) and so-called "honour killings". There is no honour in murder, nor is it honourable to force someone to marry, a practice that prime minister David Cameron has denounced as "little more than slavery".

I was 14 years old when I first came to realise that people within my community had been forced to marry. My Iranian-Pakistani heritage encompasses two of the ethnicities most at risk of honour abuse.

One of my heroes is Jasvinder Sanghera. At the age of 16, she became the only girl in her family to say no to her parents when they tried to force her to marry. She ran away and was subsequently disowned. Ever since, Sanghera has dedicated her life to campaigning against forced marriage.

She became my inspiration after I pored over her 2009 book Daughters of Shame, which has been the linchpin of my own activism. My work began with assemblies and meetings, and has since expanded to include speaking on national platforms, as well as doing workshops and teacher training.

`Culture' is no excuse

Schools in particular must be aware of these crimes. Forced marriage is not cultural, it is abuse. When Sanghera - a pioneer in the field - first spoke out, she couldn't get anyone to take her seriously.

"What? Forcing someone to marry?" people would cry. "This is Britain. That kind of thing doesn't happen here."

Headteachers tore down her posters, citing "cultural sensitivity". Meanwhile, police officers scarcely followed up on honour abuse claims, fearing accusations of racism.

It wasn't until cases hit the headlines, such as the honour killing of Banaz Mahmod in 2006 and the murder of schoolgirl Shafilea Ahmed (whose parents were convicted in 2012 of suffocating her nine years earlier after she resisted attempts at an arranged marriage), that people began to sit up and listen.

These crimes can have tragic consequences, and when young people are forced to marry or undergo FGM it is abuse pure and simple, irrespective of ethnicity and regardless of culture.

In fact, allowing these crimes to continue going unpunished could be considered racist because it is British children of minority ethnicities who are suffering.

Empowering information

Knowledge is power, and we want to empower our youth. Schools must inform them of what might happen and how they can protect not just themselves but also their friends.

A great way to start would be to include books on the subject in school libraries. Authors including Aneeta Prem and Sufiya Ahmed have penned novels depicting forced marriage that are easy to read and relate to (But it's Not Fair and Secrets of the Henna Girl, respectively).

It would be even better if schools invited in a charity such as Freedom or Karma Nirvana to provide teacher training on how to deal with such a sensitive issue. In fact, this really should be a part of schools' child protection policies.

In my gap year next year, I will concentrate on educating young people about these issues by holding workshops for 15- and 16-year-old students with my partner Hibo Wardere, an FGM survivor. Our youth are a source of inspiration to me every day: how they tackle these issues, break silences and speak about the unspeakable.

My own campaign began when I was a student at Walthamstow School for Girls in East London, which believed in my potential and let me run with my passion to become an activist. Let's mobilise the next generation and educate to eradicate forced marriage.

Arifa Nasim is a campaigner and sixth-form student at Forest School in Walthamstow, East London. Find her on Twitter at @arifa_aleem


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