Every year, hundreds of schoolgirls disappear from the classroom. Should teachers be doing more to protect their students from forced marriages?
Barely able to speak for holding back tears, 16-year-old Nabila Hussein looks away as she struggles to keep herself together. She is shaking. She is contemplating how she would feel if her parents managed to force her to marry on a trip they are planning back home to Pakistan. “Heartbreaking. It would be heartbreaking,” she whispers.
Like many girls, Nabila has a boyfriend. However, as the daughter of a conservative Muslim family, this puts her at risk. Once when she was out walking with her boyfriend, a family friend saw them and reported back. Since then, her two elder brothers have subjected her to repeated beatings, one of which was so serious it resulted in a trip to hospital.
Nabila’s schoolwork has suffered, partly as a result of the emotional trauma and partly because of the raging migraines she now gets through being repeatedly beaten about the head. She’s studying for AS-levels, but doesn’t think she has much chance of getting them. Her parents are saying that they want to take her on the hajj (pilgrimage to Mecca), but she is convinced this is a pretext for marrying her off to someone she has never met.
Nabila is one of many victims of “honour-based” violence, which, at its most extreme, can see young women of south Asian and Kurdish origin being murdered by their families. This kind of abuse has its roots in the cultural concept of women’s chastity being in the control of the men in her family; any suggestion of independence is seen as defiling the family’s reputation or “honour”. It can occur in strict Muslim and also Sikh families.
When Aisha Ali, also 16, protested at her family’s plans to marry her off, her father transformed from loving parent to violent abuser. She had already seen her sisters forcibly married on what they had all been told was a family trip to Pakistan. “My dad used to always encourage me to get a job, do further education, and then he just changed and said I had to get married,” she says. “He got violent, abusive, and said I’d lost the honour of our family. And once a girl does that, parents can do anything—they get the younger people in the family to do the killing, they don’t do it themselves, they get the younger ones to do it.”
In June this year, the Home Office rejected calls by women’s groups to criminalise forced marriage; however, following his speech at the Labour party conference, it seems the home secretary, John Reid, may be set to reconsider this decision.
The Forced Marriage Unit, launched in January 2005 and part of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, deals with between 250 to 300 cases a year, most of which involve girls of school age. This figure, however, does not reflect the reality of the crisis; some cases will be dealt with by NGOs, others by social services, and many will never be discovered at all. At times, girls simply disappear.
At West Yorkshire police, former inspector Philip Balmforth, now the Bradford district’s vulnerable persons officer responsible for Asian females, highlights a statistical analysis done several years ago by Bradford city council. It tracked 1,000 boys and 1,000 girls with Muslim names as they moved through school; at primary, for 1,000 boys on roll, there were 989 girls; by secondary, the 1,000 boys were still around, but the number of girls had dwindled to 860. Across the report the analyst had written: “Where have all the girls gone?” Balmforth, who gives talks to teachers and social workers, says the answer is that the girls have been taken to Bangladesh or Pakistan.
In such cases, by the time teachers notice girls have disappeared, it is frequently too late to do anything. The pattern that leads to forced marriage tends to run as follows: emotional blackmail, threats, beatings, imprisonment and kidnap. Young women can be experiencing all of these and still be attending school, albeit intermittently. And this offers a crucial window of opportunity for teachers to notice, assess and address the danger their charges may be in.
Schoolgirl Heshu Yones was 17 when, in 2002, her father stabbed her and cut her throat. She bled to death. Her father is now serving a life sentence. Heshu had already endured a campaign of beatings and threats, a trip to Iraqi Kurdistan with the intention of marrying her off, and a shamed return to Britain after a medical examination questioned her virginity.
Police sources have told Education Guardian that Heshu, a student at the William Morris Academy in west London, had reported her deteriorating home situation to teachers on several occasions but that despite this, the school contacted her parents expressing concern that her grades were going down and that her relationship with a boy was affecting her coursework.
The headteacher of William Morris Academy, Liz Walton, declined to talk to Education Guardian about the impact of this loss on her school or any measures put in place to make sure children in such difficulties can be helped in the future.
Many teachers feel they are ill-equipped to recognise the signs of possible problems, let alone to intervene. Many would like to have access to more help and information. A course on forced marriage run each year by West Yorkshire police specifically for school staff is always oversubscribed, and Karma Nirvana, a Derby-based women’s group, together with Derby city council’s child protection officer, Kevin Murphy, regularly goes into schools to explain what steps need to be taken when managing this type of unfolding emergency.
A teacher may not know whether to believe an adolescent girl who says, perhaps in an offhand way, that her father says he’s going to kill her if she carries on seeing some boy. Teenagers having bust-ups with their families is hardly news. And there is real fear among some professionals that interfering with cultural customs they don’t understand would risk charges of ignorance or racism.
Life and death
This isn’t good enough, says Shazia Qayum, young person’s project worker at Karma Nirvana. “Schools need to be aware that you’ve only got one chance to save a life. You must believe that child and speak to them individually. The Forced Marriage Unit guidelines need to be implemented in schools, and they are not being.
“Once a child has spoken to you, do not contact the parents. The next day she could be absent from school and then the chance has gone. She could be abroad, and we’d never know.”
In just the first six months of this year, Qayum registered a caseload of 15 girls. “The youngest is 10, a potential victim of forced marriage. Another, now 18, has been locked up in her house for two years. They’ve got barbed wire all around the garden so she can’t escape. Five of the girls have gone missing. One of them, a 16-year—old, turned up a few weeks ago, pregnant and married to a 36-year-old man. We don’t know what’s happened to the others.”
Derby City, which has a large population originating from south Asia, has a keen awareness of the problem. Olwyn Mills, a designated teacher for child protection employed by Derby city council, has been given permission to speak to Education Guardian only on condition that her school’s name is not mentioned. This is out of concern that relationships with the local community could be damaged by her speaking out, and children might be put at further risk.
“As with any child protection issue, girls at risk don’t tell you straight away,” says Mills. “They’ll come on different pretexts, they’re testing you, and you’ll see them more often than you would normally.
“They might ask you, ‘If I’m forced to get married, what would happen . . . ?’ and I’ll give them the forced marriage leaflet. Then I’d ask them: ‘Is this something you’re worried about?’ and they’ll say, ‘No, no, I’m just interested’.
“But when they finally come and disclose, they’re terrified. And you have to be straight with them about the choices that are facing them. You have to explain the confidentiality clause in your child protection policy—that if the situation is very serious, you may have to pass on the information they give you. If they have to be removed to a refuge, it can be a life-changing event. At 16, you’re saying to them, you may not see your family again, ever. And this is a huge burden.”
School as sanctuary
A headteacher and her deputy, with over 30 years’ experience between them at a school in the Bradford area that has nearly 90% ethnic minority students, know only too well the dilemmas facing teaching staff trying to help girls in danger. Reluctant to be identified because of previous threats, both women are determined that their school will be a sanctuary for pupils. Despite all their efforts at prevention, however, two or three cases a year have to be referred to social services.
“That can end up making things worse, because when the social worker visits, the girls can end up saying what the parents want them to say because they’re so frightened,” says the headteacher. “There are cultural pressures that conflict with everyday modern Bradford living, and many girls will somehow balance those pressures. But others will struggle with reconciling them, at the same time as wanting to get an education, and it can become too much. One girl from here ended up taking an overdose.”
The stresses for teachers can be significant. Five years ago, this headteacher had to involve the Foreign Office in the case of a pupil who rang her in panic from Pakistan saying she was being forced into a marriage. Despite everyone’s best efforts, the girl was married off and hasn’t returned.
“The family found out that we were helping her and I had some concerns for my safety at that point,” says the head.
“It’s emotionally taxing, and a bit frightening at times. It’s draining too, because it’s not something that you really want to share with other people,” says her deputy. “We’ve had a very difficult time.”
Ensuring some continuity for children is vital, even if they end up being taken away for their own safety to live in a refuge, say the teachers. Education can eventually be a way for them to gain independence and a viable future where they can build careers and relationships to support them in the absence of their family network.
Back in Derby, Mills says that her school makes enormous efforts to ensure that schoolwork is fed through to girls who are being kept in safe-houses outside the county, by passing on assignments to social workers, which are then marked and sent back.
Aisha Ali knows the crisis she faced has significantly affected her education and her life chances. “When my parents stopped me going to school the year before GCSEs, I was doing OK, I was working up to my target grade. But when my attendance dropped, everything dropped.”
Fleeing to a refuge and having to deal with a great deal of subsequent disruption meant that Aisha failed to get any qualifications at all. “I feel left out,” she says. “I was watching the news when the GCSE results came out, and it made me feel a bit jealous, to see other people getting theirs, and I’ve not got mine.”
Nabila Hussein is still living in fear at home, contemplating reporting her brothers’ assaults to police, in the full knowledge that she could lose her family entirely. Her school doesn’t know the gravity of her situation because she hasn’t felt able to tell them. How many other girls are turning up to lessons each morning feeling the same despair and isolation?
Is a pupil anxious, depressed or emotionally withdrawn?
Has she failed to do homework?
Has the quality of her work deteriorated for no apparent reason?
Has she been missing school without good reason?
Have any siblings left education early, or returned married from a holiday abroad?
Do: If a child refers to a possible fear or concern, even casually, believe her and act accordingly. Treat this as a child protection issue. Get help from the Forced Marriage Unit, 020 7008 0151; www.fco.gov.uk
Don’t: Contact parents if a child comes to you with fears of forced marriage—it could put her in danger.
· Some of the names in this article have been changed.