School staff urged to log on to spot the trauma of forced marriage

11th June 2010 at 01:00
New official website outlines the dos and don'ts of dealing with pressing problem

Teachers who suspect that their pupils may be at risk of forced marriage will now be able to find advice and support from a new resource.

The e-learning website, which was launched by the Government's Forced Marriage Unit last week, is designed to help teachers, doctors and social workers identify and support potential victims.

Olaf Henricson-Bell, joint head of the unit, said: "We regularly get stories from teachers who remember a young girl who didn't come back from summer holiday. There was talk of a marriage, but they didn't intervene, because they thought that was how things happened in that community.

"We need people to realise that this isn't acceptable. Forced marriage is an abuse of human rights."

In 2009, the unit received more than 1,600 phone calls and emails to its helpline. These included cases of forced marriage in countries such as Pakistan, Bangladesh and Somalia. Approximately 15 per cent of cases involve male victims.

Many victims, male and female, are of school age. Reported incidents tend to peak immediately after school holidays, when teenagers fail to return from a family trip abroad.

The new site is therefore designed to help school staff spot an impending forced marriage before it actually takes place. Along with official guidance and links to specialist organisations, it offers interactive tutorials, outlining what teachers should and should not do. Reporting concerns to the teenager's parents, for example, can backfire, leading to honour-based violence or a rushed wedding.

Teachers can also read the story of Cynthia, a previously enthusiastic pupil, who became increasingly withdrawn as a teenager. When Cynthia was 15, her behaviour and attitude worsened considerably. She missed several end-of-year exams, and did not turn up for school in September. Eventually, Cynthia's friends told teachers that she had spoken about a possible forced marriage in Nigeria. The school then contacted the unit and Cynthia was ultimately repatriated.

"Forced marriage is something that people can't believe happens in their country, in their street, in their school," said Mr Henricson-Bell. "But it affects real people, real lives. We want to make people aware of what they can do to change the lives of individuals in their care.

"When it gets down to it, forced marriage is about rape, sexual assault, death in some cases. But it's also about a young person finding out who they want to be: what they want to do, who they want as a life partner. They're having those choices taken away from them. Our work is about giving them those choices back."

Where's the love?

Forced marriage is conducted without the valid consent of one or both spouses.

- Pressure to marry can be physical, psychological, financial, sexual or emotional.

- Forced marriage is not the same as arranged marriage.

- In 2009, the Government's Forced Marriage Unit received 1,682 calls and emails to its helpline about potential incidences.

- Most cases involve girls and women between the ages of 13 and 30. t

Calls to the Unit peak at the start of the school term: victims are often taken abroad on holiday, then prevented from returning.

- The majority of cases reported to the unit concern South Asian families. But cases also arise involving people from the Middle East, Europe and Africa.

- Women trapped in forced marriages often suffer violence, rape and forced childbearing.

- Escapees from forced marriages can become the target of honour-based violence, or even murder.

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