It is the time of year when schools are winding down for the summer, and pupils and staff are looking forward excitedly to a much-deserved holiday.
But for some children the six-week break is a time of fear and dread. This summer an estimated 350 pupils in this country will walk out of school on the last day of term and never return.
The Foreign and Commonwealth Office is warning head teachers to be vigilant to students who may be about to fall victim to a forced marriage (as opposed to an arranged marriage). Usually, these teenagers –some of whom may be under-age – are taken abroad, believing they are going on holiday, and compelled to enter marriages with a partner they have never met or seen before. However, some forced marriages also take place in this country.
The problem is a very real issue for many schools, says Lesley Gannon, Head of Campaigns with the National Association of Head Teachers. “Head teachers tell us this is of considerable concern to them because they don’t want to misread the signs and it is such a sensitive and emotive area,” she says.
“No-one wants to offend particular communities or families by misunderstanding a situation, and some of the outward behaviours by children that might indicate that something is wrong will be applicable to teenage behaviour generally, and may have nothing at all to do with the prospect of a forced marriage.”
The Forced Marriage Unit, a joint initiative between the FCO and the Home Office, has identified a number of tell-tale signs that may suggest a child is vulnerable to a forced marriage:
A student is anxious about or is fearing the forthcoming school holidays.
Surveillance of a student by siblings or cousins at school or being met by family at the end of the day.
A student being prevented from continuing their education in the sixth form, college or university.
Other signs may include persistent absence; requests for extended leave; a decline in behaviour, performance or punctuality; not being allowed to attend extra-curricular activities or the sudden announcement of an engagement to a stranger.
There is no typical victim of a forced marriage but, according to FMU figures, a majority (56.2%) involve families from Pakistan. Pupils with Indian and Bangladeshi origins may also be vulnerable, though forced marriages are also known to take place in the Middle East, parts of Africa, Turkey and Eastern Europe.
Ben Rawlings, Joint Head of the FMU, said: “Head teachers and teachers can play a crucial role in identifying and protecting students who are at risk of forced marriage and we urge them to be vigilant in the run up to the summer holidays.
“If the warning signs are picked up early enough, a teacher can stop a forced marriage happening however it is vital that they follow our guidelines on how to handle the situation to avoid putting the victim at further risk.”
Last year the FMU gave advice or support relating to 1,735 possible instances of forced marriage, and has already received 738 calls or emails to its helpline so far this year. But the volume is expected to rise over the summer months.
Heads who suspect that a child may be a risk should seek advice in the first instance from the FMU helpline (see below), says Lesley Gannon.
“Our advice is to contact the helplines, speak to someone and get clear advice on how to proceed. Heads obviously want to be seen to be inclusive and fair, and are anxious that something they do or say may stereotype or be deemed as racist,” she says.” They also want to be sure they are on the right tracks.
“Often it is a case of outlining the situation and talking through the appropriate action to take. As this is a safe-guarding issue and forced marriage is illegal, it may require children protection procedures to be implemented, particularly if the young person is underage.”
Ms Gannon added: “We need to raise awareness of this in schools as this is a very serious issue. At the same time, we have to give pupils the opportunity to be able to confide their fears in someone, so it is a very difficult and delicate path for head teachers to navigate.”
Heads and teachers who suspect a child may be at risk should contact the Forced Marriage Unit helpline on 020 7008 0151 or email firstname.lastname@example.org for advice on how to handle the case. For out of hours emergency advice, call 020 7008 1500 and ask for the FCO Global Response Centre.
Further information can be found by visiting www.fco.gov.uk/forcedmarriage.
The FMU also provides an online resource to help education professionals identify and provide appropriate support to potential victims of forced marriage www.fmelearning.co.uk.
This article was written by Dorothy Lepkowska.
Page published : 14/07/2011