Forced marriages: New guidance for teachers to display information

14th August 2009 at 01:00
Some teachers have been reluctant to display information about forced marriages for fear of offending pupils' cultural sensibilities. But with new mandatory guidance in place, the role of schools in tackling the problem is taking centre stage

Original magazine headline: I don't

At the age of eight, Alim* was taken to Pakistan on a family holiday. He was excited at the prospect - never before had he visited his grandparents in Pakistan. Shortly after his arrival, he was made aware by his parents that this would be the day of his engagement.

His wife-to-be was his uncle's daughter, who was six years old at the time. "I was young - I didn't understand what was happening," he says. "There was a full ceremony, and after that I came back to the UK."

Eight years later, Alim was shown a picture of his fiancee. "I was surprised and shocked that my family would do that to me. We argued and argued. it turned into a major dispute," he remembers. "All I kept saying was, `I'm not going to get married to my uncle's daughter'." Alim was emotionally blackmailed until he agreed to travel to Pakistan to marry the girl to whom he had been promised.

Alim is one of the 250 young people whose tale of forced marriage is reported to the Foreign Office's Forced Marriage Unit every year. The number of reported cases increased significantly in the past year, and the summer holidays are the peak time during which children and young adults are sent to their home countries - mainly Pakistan and Bangladesh - to be forced into marriage.

Earlier this summer, the Government issued new guidelines to teachers, doctors and police to help identify and tackle the problem, together with a batch of materials, including posters, leaflets and cards, on what constitutes forced marriage and the sources of support available.

In the past, these well-intended resources were not always regarded as appropriate for the classroom. Indeed, some teachers point blank refused to use or display them for fear of offending cultural sensitivities. This year, however, the guidance has become statutory. But can displaying the information alone really combat the issue?

"The children have reacted positively towards the resources," says David Nichols, headteacher at Littleover Community School in Derby. "The information is available to children on notice boards and on the intranet system. We do our best to equip pupils with the means to get help if they were to be coerced into marriage."

Others are not so sure about the positive consequences of placing posters in busy spaces in schools. It is by no means the most useful option, says Dr Geetanjali Gangoli, lecturer in policy studies at Bristol University. "I can understand why teachers have felt hesitant," she says. "Placed in public spaces, these posters can serve to isolate children even more, especially if there are only small numbers of south Asian children."

Dr Gangoli suggests that awareness-raising materials should be positioned in more private spaces such as toilet cubicles. "Posters should be placed in areas where pupils are likely to be alone," she comments. "Research on domestic violence suggests that this is a useful strategy to get the information out there."

School and authorities made no enquiries

When Shazia Qayum was taken out of school in the summer term of 1995, these materials did not exist and no one was aware of the issue. Shazia thought she was alone in her situation and did not know who to turn to. Her sudden absence did not prompt any kind of reaction - not from her teacher, not from her school, and certainly not from the authorities. Not even her peers made any enquiries as to where she had disappeared.

She was kept at home, completely isolated from the outside world, and became a victim of severe emotional abuse. After a one-year period of being locked in her room, she was brought to Pakistan and forced to marry at the age of 17. "If I had known that there were others out there experiencing the same thing, it's quite possible I would have sought help," she says. "If I had been aware of the help available to me, things might have been different."

After a long and arduous fight for independence, she was able to establish herself as a charity worker in order to help other young people suffering the same fate. Today, she is the team leader of Karma Nirvana, a Derby- based charity that raises awareness about forced marriage and honour-based violence. She has strong ideas about the role of teachers in combating the issue.

"Teachers have a key role in lending help and support to young children in this type of situation," she says. "I do think, however, that there is a lack of understanding in schools concerning forced marriage."

Ms Qayum knows through her own bitter experience what happens when teachers and the authorities are not aware of the important issues surrounding forced marriage, but how can schools tackle this lack of understanding? The first step is getting rid of common misconceptions about the issue.

One such notion is that the issue of forced marriage should be treated with caution for fear of offending cultural sensitivities. Teachers have been cautious for the wrong reasons, believes Ms Qayum, as forced marriage is not a religious issue. The Government regards forced marriage as an abuse of human rights and a form of domestic abuse and, where it affects children and young people, child abuse.

Caution is strictly the wrong approach, says Professor Yunas Samad, director of the Ethnicity and Social Policy Research Centre at Bradford University. "An important function of the Forced Marriage Unit is to remind schools of their statutory responsibilities and not to confuse this with multiculturalism," he says.

Distinction must be made between forced and arranged marriages

Equally, teachers must be aware that there is a strong distinction between forced and arranged marriage. "There has been confusion between arranged and forced marriage and that some saw it as coming under the rubric of multiculturalism," says Professor Samad.

A forced marriage is a marriage conducted without the consent of both parties, and often involves emotional blackmail and physical abuse. In the case of an arranged marriage, on the other hand, the families of both spouses simply take a leading role in arranging the marriage, but the choice whether or not to accept the arrangement remains with the prospective spouses.

The majority of cases of forced marriage reported to date in the United Kingdom involve south Asian families. For the most part, this is a reflection of the fact that there is a large, established south Asian population in the United Kingdom. But they are by no means the only victims. Some forced marriages take place in the United Kingdom with no overseas element, while others involve a partner coming from overseas or a British citizen being sent abroad.

It is often hard to understand the motivation that prompts families to put their child through forced marriage, but teachers simply writing off this cultural phenomenon as "barbaric" can lead to a situation where children will feel isolated and withdraw further into themselves, says Dr Gangoli. Understanding the motives that drive parents to force their children into marriage is an important part of creating a tolerant atmosphere at schools, in which pupils can talk openly about family life.

Parents who force their children to marry often justify their behaviour by claiming to protect their children. According to the Department for Children, Schools and Families' guidelines, they have expressed the wish to build stronger families and preserve cultural or religious traditions. Often parents believe that they are upholding the cultural traditions of their home country, when in fact practices and values in their country of origin have changed.

This is especially the case when their children have assimilated to British culture. In some instances, as in Alim's case, an agreement may have been made about marriage when a child was in their infancy or early childhood.

But while it's important to have an understanding of the motives that drive parents to force their children to marry, these motives should not be accepted as a justification for denying them the right to choose a marriage partner and enter freely into marriage, warns the DCSF.

In order to spread this knowledge among staff and pupils, education experts advise that schools should nominate someone to take responsibility for co-ordinating action on forced marriage. Schools are expected to nominate someone to be in charge of child protection, so this could be the same person, suggests Mr Nichols.

The specific role will be to ensure that all staff receive an adequate level of training and to co-ordinate this training with other initiatives, such as curriculum learning and exposure of helpline information through the forced marriage posters and leaflets.

Obstacles ahead

Even with the appropriate strategies in place, teachers may be faced with obstacles, says Dr Gangoli. "The Child Protection Act, however well- intended, can actually stand in the way of children confiding in teachers," she says. "If a child does report a case of forced marriage, the teacher is obliged to report this to the authorities - children are aware of these laws."

Dr Gangoli assumes that children feel as though they are betraying their parents by speaking out. For this reason it is important to make it clear to children that although a higher authority may become involved, their families will under no circumstances be informed.

It is useful to combine awareness-raising materials with looking at all of the issues surrounding forced marriage under personal, social and health education or within citizenship learning. Mr Nichols takes a positive stance towards tackling the issue. "Children respond well to the topic in PSHE lessons - they speak openly about the issue. Pupils from south Asian families are generally self-possessed and willing to communicate."

Although early recognition and ongoing support of pupils at risk is crucial, schools need to approach the issue on a number of levels. Encouraging affected pupils to discuss the issues openly without fear of recrimination will do far more good than a few strategically placed posters

*Name has been changed

Take action

Making the resources work for you

  • Think about placing posters in private spaces, such as toilet cubicles.
  • Don't target particular groups with information as this might serve to alienate them.
  • Make use of posters for the staffroom as these could serve to clear up any confusion among the teaching staff.
  • The use of the materials will only have an effect if there is a general sense of understanding about the issues surrounding forced marriage.
    • Common misconceptions

      • Forced marriage is not restricted to the south Asian community. There have been cases involving families from the Middle East, Europe and Africa
      • There is a strict distinction between forced and arranged marriage. Forced marriage is carried out without the consent of the child and often involves duress
      • Some forced marriages have no overseas element. They are carried out in the UK too
      • Parents often see nothing wrong with their behaviour and may be motivated by the wish to build stronger families and to preserve cultural or religious traditions
      • Forced marriage should not be treated with caution for fear of offending cultural sensitivities as it is not a religious issue.

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