Forced marriages: the wrong sort of holiday deal

3rd July 2009 at 01:00
Teachers urged to be alert to signs of distress as summer presents opportunity for girls' removal

While all her classmates were eagerly looking forward to the end of term, Cynthia was visibly dreading it.

The 15-year-old's behaviour worsened significantly as the holidays approached. She began to miss school, and failed to turn up to several exams. She lost weight, and showed no interest in her schoolwork.

That summer, Cynthia was taken to Nigeria and forced into marriage by her parents.

To prevent teenagers like Cynthia being married against their will during the forthcoming summer holidays, the Government's Forced Marriages Unit has published new guidelines for those working in education, health and social services.

Last year, more than 1,600 suspected forced marriages were reported to the unit, although the actual number is believed to be up to five times higher. A third of all cases involved girls - and, occasionally, boys - under the age of 18; 14 per cent of known victims were under 16.

The new guidelines point out that teachers are often ideally placed to spot early signs that a pupil may be forced into marriage.

"Staff may become aware of a student, because they appear anxious, depressed and emotionally withdrawn, with low self-esteem," the guidelines state. "Students may present with a sudden decline in their performance, aspirations or motivation."

Sarah Russell, head of the Forced Marriage Unit, says that such signs are often exacerbated by the approaching summer holidays.

"A concerned teacher will often contact us and say that a pupil is going away on a family holiday but doesn't seem very happy about it," she said. "The teacher may be aware that the pupil is in a very controlled and controlling environment, and concerned that forced marriage seems to be a possibility.

"If we can get to someone before they go abroad, then we can do so much more. Once someone has gone, it can be very difficult to find out where they are."

In Cynthia's case, the unit was not alerted until she failed to turn up for school at the start of the autumn term. It eventually found her in Nigeria and brought her back to Britain. She is now living in foster care and has retaken her GCSEs.

For 15-year-old Rashida, help took longer to arrive. She was taken to Pakistan by her father when she was aged 10 and told that she was engaged to her cousin. She endured five years of beatings and virtual house arrest before the unit was alerted to her situation.

"Forced marriage often involves a lot of abuse," Ms Russell said. "There's emotional as well as physical abuse. It's an unimaginably tough thing for a child to go through."

But reporting early concerns can be difficult. Because pupils' families are often the perpetrators of the abuse, teachers need to be wary about approaching them.

"If parents are told there are problems with a child's behaviour, that can be a motivator to accelerate a forced marriage," Ms Russell said. "You need to have this in the back of your mind: what will be the consequences?"

Instead, teachers should create an environment in which pupils feel able to talk about any concerns.

For example, discussions about marriage can flow from the study of Romeo and Juliet. Forced marriage can be mentioned during PHSE discussions about relationships or human rights, and survivors of forced marriages can be invited to address pupils.

"Make sure you have protocols in place," said Ms Russell. "For teachers, knowing the right person to talk to can really help. Then you know what steps to take next."

Children at risk: warning signals

- Depression, anxiety or low self-esteem, often accompanied by self-harming behaviour

- Persistent absence or being withdrawn from school by parents

- Failure to return from a visit to country of origin

- Fear about forthcoming school holidays

- Pupils being watched by older brothers or cousins during school hours

- Decline in behaviour, interest in lessons, academic performance or punctuality

- Pupils not allowed to participate in extra-curricular activities

- Conflict with parents over whether the pupil can continue with GCSEs, A-levels or a degree.

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