There are hundreds of cases of forced marriage involving UK citizens each year, some of which lead to murder. Is the issue being taken seriously enough by social services, asks Josephine Hocking
When Fehmida Khan* was 15 she ran away from home to escape a forced marriage. One of nine sisters, she didn’t want to go to Pakistan and become a teenage bride. She wanted to stay at school and one day become a teacher. Instead, she became homeless.
Now 16, and despite finding support at Karma Nirvana in Derby, a project that works with south Asian children and women, she faces each new day not knowing where she will be sleeping that night.
Jasvinder Sanghera, founder and director of Karma Nirvana, describes forced marriage as “an issue of violence, mainly against
girls and young women, which can involve crimes including rape, child abduction, false imprisonment and even murder”.
Since the police began collecting information in this field there have been at least 12 honour murders in the UK each year. The Metropolitan Police defines such murders as being for “actual or perceived immoral behaviour, deemed to have breached the honour code of a family or community causing shame”.
So a runaway daughter, one who refuses to marry or who falls in love with someone who doesn’t have parental approval, is seen as bringing shame on the family. According to a poll for BBC Asian Network this summer, 8 per cent of young Asians aged 16-34 believe honour killings can be justified.
Recent horrific cases include Samaira Nazir, 25, stabbed to death by her brother and cousin for loving the “wrong” man.
Banaz Mahmod Babakir Agha was another victim of honour violence, according to the Iranian and Kurdish Women’s Rights Organisation. She was 20 and seeking to remarry after ending a forced marriage. Her body was found in a suitcase buried in
Birmingham. Members of her family will go on trial for her murder next year.
Guidance on forced marriage for social workers was issued in 2004 by the Association of Directors of Social Servicesand the government’s Forced Marriage Unit. It is currently being revised and the new version will be published next month.
But it is questionable whether social workers are using the original version. Fehmida certainly thinks social workers need to get up to speed on forced marriage and understand how serious and dangerous it can be for south Asian children. She is not complimentary about the profession because social workers “offered me no help when I needed it”.
She is particularly scathing about the social worker who put her on a train to get to a refuge. “I’d never been on a train before. I didn’t know what to do,” she says.
She is not alone. In its response to the government’s consultation on forced marriage last year, the British Association of
Social Workers said: “Our concern is that these documents [the guidance] may still not be familiar to all front-line workers and services let alone be reinforced by adequate and ongoing training.”
BASW also described “a lot of ignorance among professionals” about forced marriage in the response.
Back in 2000, Hannana Siddiqui, joint co-ordinator of voluntary group Southall Black Sisters, accused social workers of
failing in their statutory duty to protect children and vulnerable adults from forced marriage. Six years on, she believes there is still “failure to recognise the issue as child abuse” and that social workers’ response to forced marriage is inconsistent.
Siddiqui thinks the guidance represents progress but questions “how effectively it is implemented and monitored”. “Forced
marriage needs a push from the top of the social work profession,” she says. “Senior people are not doing anything.”
A response to a survey of ADSS members in 2005, asking if there should be a national steering group on forced marriage,
may prove Siddiqui’s point: it only generated 20 replies.
Many think that social work’s response to forced marriage lags behind that of the police. At a conference earlier this year,
Fauzia Khan, case officer at the Forced Marriage Unit, which deals with as many as 250 cases of forced marriage a year, said
social services are not following the guidance and “don’t know what to do” when working with victims. Some children are
not believed by social workers because disclosures about forced marriage and honour-based violence can sound far-fetched.
There is also a train of thought that social workers fail to intervene for fear of being considered disrespectful of cultures, or even racist.
“We have a politically correct culture that can lead to paralysis,” says Sanghera. BASW agrees, saying some professionals
are “perhaps mistakenly thinking that forced marriage is analogous to arranged marriage and should not be challenged on
But progress is being made at some councils. Rochdale Council was the first to draw up a protocol on forced marriage. Elaine
King, safeguarding children unit manager, says the council manages an extremely difficult issue “quietly and sensitively”.
Staff receive training on forced marriage and the authority’s safeguarding children board is involved. When working with children at risk of forced marriage, social workers in Rochdale will involve their families wherever possible, says King.
“As with any child protection case, there are some families you can’t work with, we have to assess the risks individually for each young person,” she adds.
But social workers need to be aware that involving parents when forced marriage is suspected can be a mistake. Attempting
to mediate when a young person has fled the family home is particularly dangerous. There have been cases of young people
being murdered by their families while mediation was being undertaken. Simply arranging a meeting between them and
their family can lead to undue pressure being placed on them to return home.
Andy Baker, deputy director of the Serious and Organised Crime Agency, and former lead on honour violence for the Association of Chief Police Officers, says: “Young people who are brave enough to leave their families after resisting forced marriage face a lack of provision and help.”
Due to a dearth of suitable accommodation, children may be sent to stay in B&Bs, he adds. And this lack of alternatives results in some returning to their families, knowing they could be in danger.
Sanghera says it is a “hard slog” for social workers to place children who are victims of forced marriage, especially in “culturally appropriate” services. “Emergency refuge is very competitive to get into, and there is a lack of suitable foster carers,” she says.
Meeting the needs of these young people is not going to be easy. But greater awareness by front-line staff including social
workers would be a good start.
* Name has been changed
FIND OUT MORE
Social workers and other professionals who encounter a suspected case of forced marriage should contact the government’s
Forced Marriage Unit as soon as possible. “The sooner we know about the case, the more we can do to help,” says the unit. Its website includes a free download of Young People and Vulnerable Adults Facing Forced Marriage: Practice Guidance
for Social Workers. An updated version of the guidance will be published next month.
Tel: 020 7008 0151
‘My best friend was killed by her dad’
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This article appeared in the 16-22 November issue, under the headline “Forced Marriage: Whose shame”