David Barrett, London Telegraph, September 28, 2008
The disclosure comes as official figures show that nearly 60 children aged 15 or under have been rescued by the Government’s Forced Marriage Unit in the past four years.
The cases are feared to be the tip of the iceberg. They will fuel concerns, first raised earlier this year, that large numbers of children are disappearing from British schools to be forced into wedlock overseas.
A charity which runs a national helpline on forced marriage and “honour”-based crimes, Karma Nirvana, revealed that in one incident a nine-year-old girl from a Pakistani family in the east Midlands was taken into council care after her parents told her she was to wed.
Jasvinder Sanghera, director of Karma Nirvana, said that on average four children a month aged under 16 have contacted its helpline since it launched in April.
“The youngest child we have dealt with was nine years old,” she said. “The girl told her teacher she was going to be forced to marry someone and initially she was not believed.
“Ultimately, with the help of the Forced Marriage Unit, she was dealt with through child protection procedures. She was assessed and, thankfully, taken into foster care.”
Ms Sanghera called on ministers to make sure primary school children are taught about forced marriage and given advice on how to avoid becoming a victim.
The Forced Marriage Unit has helped rescue 58 underage children since it was set up in January 2005, including 11 under-16s so far this year. The youngest victim this year was 13, one was 14 and nine were 15.
The unit deals with 5,000 inquiries and 300 cases of forced marriage a year. A third of inquiries come from under 18s.
The youngest victim repatriated by the unit, which is jointly funded by the Home Office and the Foreign Office, was an 11-year-old girl who was flown back to Britain from Dhaka, Bangladesh, last year after her parents had agreed to marry her to a local man.
Ms Sanghera, who herself fled home after being threatened with forced marriage at the age of 15, said: “I currently have cases involving four children aged 11 to 14 who were forced to marry or were at risk, and have now been made wards of court.
“You don’t just get forced into a marriage at 16 or 17; this is happening to very young children. We certainly have had cases of minors being sexually abused.
“If you are forced into marriage as a minor you will be multiple-raped, because as a child you are legally unable to give consent.
“But we have no idea how many children under 16 are at risk, and this is compounded by a reluctance of schools to engage with the issue. Many schools shy away due to supposed cultural sensitivities.”
She went on: “There will be children sitting in our classrooms this week who have already had identified for them a husband or a wife.
“These marriages can be prevented by identifying the signs in school or teachers believing pupils when they raise it.”
The problem is particularly prevalent in Pakistani communities, where betrothing offspring to their first cousins is common practice, said Ms Sanghera.
“It happens across all races but there is a disproportionate number of cases within the Pakistani community, and we need to recognise that,” she said.
“At Karma Nirvana we have noticed a significant trend of young people aged 14, 15 and 16 coming forward for our services.
“We need reassurance from schools, especially headteachers, that existing Department for Children, Schools and Families posters giving advice about forced marriage are displayed in primary and secondary schools.
“We also believe there should be proper headcounts of pupils after the summer holidays, so that steps can be taken if any children have disappeared from the register. I think what the schools discover will alarm them.”
She estimated there could be a dozen cases a year in some medium-sized comprehensive schools with significant numbers of Asian children.
A nine-month study by Karma Nirvana in 2006 followed the fortunes of 15 girls aged 10 to 18 in Derby, where the charity is based. By the end of the study, four had been taken abroad including a 17-year-old who had subsequently returned to the UK after being wed to a 35-year-old man.
Earlier this year a report by the Commons’ all-party Home Affairs Select Committee said 2,089 pupils were unaccounted for in just 14 local council areas of England and Wales. A proportion of these are believed to have been children removed from education and forced into marriages overseas.