As millions of schoolchildren across England and Wales break up for the summer over the coming days, a few hundred, the vast majority girls, are full of dread. These are the victims of forced marriage, a tradition that is spreading across the country, and spreading fear in its wake.
The victims of forced marriage – and some who manage to escape it, too – are being failed by the services they most desperately need. Social services, police and schools still often miss the signs of forced marriage and can put victims at further risk through improper handling of cases, research by the Henry Jackson Society (HJS) and further investigation by this newspaper have found.
More than a year after a new law criminalising the practice, there has been just one prosecution for forced marriage, despite more than 1,200 potential cases being discovered every year.
The Independent today begins a series of articles to make the case that one prosecution is not enough and that the number of perpetrators who are tried in court needs to increase dramatically.
Services are ill-prepared to deal with these crimes and frightened of causing cultural offence, the HJS report shows. Survivors said they felt “let down by professionals in social services and schools” because they failed to identify the risks or intervene in cases of forced marriage.
Some of those who escaped forced marriage and spoke out to police and social workers were encouraged to return to the families that endangered them, despite explaining their grave fears.
Several also reported receiving no emotional or practical support from the professionals they went to for help – and that professionals put them at further risk by failing to take immediate action.
Pupils such as 17-year-old Jasmine from east London, who was forcibly engaged to her cousin in South Asia during the summer holidays when she was just 13 and is interviewed in these pages, find the holidays a time when parents can seal their future far away from the scrutiny of school.
Yet when Jasmine went for help in February this year, after her parents told her they were planning to go ahead with the marriage that half-term, social services went straight to her parents and tried to send her back home.
Last summer the Forced Marriage Unit (FMU) – a joint task force run by the Home Office and Foreign Office – dealt with almost 500 of their 1,200 annual suspected forced marriage cases between June and September, making it their busiest time of year.
This summer looks set to be no different. Lucy Monaghan, joint head of the FMU, told The Independent: “For the past two weeks there’s been a sudden spike in calls and it’s where people are starting to mention that they’re going on holiday this summer or they might be attending a wedding and schools have started to pick up on it.”
No religion advocates forced marriage; the issue is a cultural one. While Muslim women and girls make up the majority of victims, a significant number come from other minority groups, including Sikhs, Hindus, Orthodox Jews and Roma families. Men can be victims too – particularly gay or bisexual men whose families hope to entrap them into rejecting their sexuality through marriage.
The majority of cases come from families linked to South Asia – 47 per cent of all victims helped by the FMU originally come from Pakistan, 11 per cent from Bangladesh and 8 per cent from India.
Not all these forced marriages are planned to take place abroad. Almost a quarter of all cases handled by the FMU concern someone at risk of being trapped into an unwanted marriage within Britain.
Origins of forced marriage cases
Survivors told researchers that teachers in their school were unaware they had victims in their class and that teachers chose not to intervene on the grounds that they saw it as a “cultural issue”.
HJS research fellow and author of the report, Emily Dyer, said: “Despite recent progress in raising awareness of ‘honour’ abuse and forced marriage in the UK, there is still a clear gap in support for victims who are leaving their families and communities behind to escape abuse.
“This is down to a lack of basic knowledge and understanding among professionals, which – as our report shows – can increase victims’ vulnerability and isolation, as well as the risk of them returning home. Provision of care needs to be standardised through training of all professionals on how to identify ‘honour’ abuse and forced marriage and how to provide victims with the necessary support.”
Jasvinder Sanghera, chief executive of Karma Nirvana, a charity working with victims of forced marriage and honour-based violence, has direct experience of schools turning a blind eye to the practice.
She recalled: “We got a letter from three girls in a school in Tower Hamlets. They said, ‘Please come to our school to talk about these issues because our friends are affected by this.’ It was a clear cry for help so I wrote to the head and said we’d like to come in and give a presentation but we got no response.
“This goes back to people not seeing this as a child and public protection issue. In some areas where you have a significant minority group people are afraid to deal with this for fear of treading on cultural toes.”
Jon Agyeman, a lecturer at Derby College, discovered the scale of the problem amongst teenagers at his college after he invited Karma Nirvana to deliver a talk there. “There were 80 students in the audience and afterwards four contacted Karma Nirvana’s helpline with an issue of honour-based violence or forced marriage,” he said. “That made me realise this is clearly a bigger issue than we think.”
Since then the college has trained its staff extensively and Mr Agyeman now realises they were missing signs before. “Over the years I’ve noticed girls who are off class. You’d say ‘Where are they?’ and you hear, ‘Oh, they’ve gone to Pakistan’. Nothing was ever said because there was a cultural acceptance that this is what they do.
“Many people don’t want to get involved and say, ‘Hang on, if a schoolgirl is disappearing off the register there’s a chance that could have been a forced marriage’. The big fear that people have is that they don’t want to be seen to be racist. We need to stop treading on eggshells and deal with this as a safeguarding issue. If you had a white girl disappearing for three weeks then safeguarding would be alerted; alarm bells would be going off.”
The minister for preventing abuse and exploitation, Karen Bradley, said: “Political and cultural sensitivities must not get in the way of tackling honour-based abuse and professionals need to have appropriate training and guidance so they can provide effective advice to victims.
Commander Mak Chishty, the National Police Chiefs Council lead on forced marriage, said: “Our training and awareness [on forced marriage] has improved remarkably over the last five years,” but he added: “We need to get the message into communities because it’s still vastly under-reported. We need victims and potential victims to come forward.”
Forced marriages in numbers
47% of victims helped by the Forced Marriage Unit originally came from Pakistan, 11% from Bangladesh and 8% from India
500 of the 1,200 cases dealt with by FMU each year come in June to September
25% of the FMU cases concern forced marriages within the UK