An education social worker from the north of England reveals how she alerted authorities to the possible forced marriage of a 16-year-old girl.

The aim of this article is to help education staff understand the process and the importance of perseverance in following a case through. All identities in this story have been changed to ensure confidentiality. Shagufta was initially referred to the education social work service in September 2004 as a result of poor school attendance. I became involved with the case in January 2005. Shagufta’s school attendance was 36% during this period, which obviously gave cause for great concern.

On my first visit to the family home I was told that Shagufta’s mother, Mrs Rashid, was in Pakistan. Although Shagufta’s father had recently died, she was living in an extended family situation, but stated that she was unhappy and lonely without her mother. She told me that she had always slept in her mother’s bed since her father died. This perhaps, demonstrated her level of immaturity. A member of the extended family also said Mrs Rashid suffered from ill health and was very dependent on Shagufta when ill.

I revisited the family home when Mrs Rashid returned from Pakistan and I explained to her that Shagufta’s poor school attendance was giving continued cause for concern. On this visit Imran, Shagufta’s older brother, acted as interpreter.

Mrs Rashid had told me that she wanted her daughter ‘settled’ as she was a girl and the youngest in the family. My perception of Mrs Rashid’s comment was that she wanted her daughter married as soon as possible. Imran then asked me what would happen if the family sent Shagufta back to Pakistan because of her poor school attendance. I explained that I or the school would trigger a child protection referral to ensure that Shagufta was not going to be the subject of a forced marriage.

I was given permission by Mrs Rashid to speak to Shagufta in school and worked with her on a one-to-one basis for approximately nine months. I sensed that there were problems/issues around the possibility of a forced marriage but unfortunately Shagufta did not disclose this. Mrs Rashid expressed little concern about Shagufta’s attendance and was very dismissive when I stated that her attendance needed to be improved from 36% to 95%. I also stated that I would prosecute Mrs Rashid if Shagufta’s attendance did not improve.

Since Shagufta’s attendance had been impeded by apparent medical problems, I gained permission from Mrs Rashid to ascertain why her daughter had lost 46 school days due to medical problems. The GP informed me that she had no underlying medical condition that would prevent her from attending school on a regular basis.

Given this information and the fact that Shagufta’s attendance had not improved, I sent a warning letter to Mrs Rashid explaining that she would be liable to criminal proceedings in the magistrates’ court under the provisions of Section 444(1) of the Education Act 1996.

Again, I met and spoke to Shagufta alone in school on a number of occasions. She presented as an unhappy and anxious young woman who struck me as being deeply discontented. I was sure in my own mind that arrangements were being made for Shagufta’s marriage and this was not what she wanted. As previously stated, she did not feel able to disclose this.

As a result of continued poor school attendance, a fixed penalty warning letter was issued in November 2005. Unfortunately, Shagufta’s attendance did not improve during the monitoring period. A fixed penalty notice of £50 was issued and this was very quickly paid in February 2006. In March 2006 I was informed by the school that they had been told by Shagufta’s family that she had gone to Pakistan for four weeks with her mother to visit her ill grandmother. I was informed by the school that friends of Shagufta had said that she was married and very happy as ‘she loved the guy’. This conflicted with other reports from school, which suggested that she was fatalistic about her journey to Pakistan and that she was going to get married and was very upset about this.

Since I was concerned that Shagufta was removed from the country and I was not convinced that she had gone of her own free will, I made a child protection referral and contacted relevant agencies, including the local police child protection unit.

Shagufta struck me as being immature for her age and extremely vulnerable and I needed to get someone to intervene quickly, hopefully before a marriage could take place.

At that stage, it would have been very easy to justify the closure of the case by the fact that she was a Year 11 student and, usually by February, most of Year 11 cases are closed. Further justification could also have been based around the fact that Shagufta was already in Pakistan.

After contacting the police child protection unit, I was referred on to a local police station, where I spoke to the vulnerable persons officer who works specifically with Asian girls.

The vulnerable persons officer took a referral and visited the family address in order to establish where Shagufta was staying in Pakistan. He explained that they could instruct Mrs Rashid to produce Shagufta at the British High Commission in Islamabad.

During this time I also made a formal child protection referral to the child protection unit. This referral was also passed on to the local social services office. The vulnerable persons officer visited the family home and was given the telephone number of an older brother known as Pervez. Pervez was extremely uncooperative and aggressive on the telephone. Given this situation, the vulnerable persons officer emailed the British High Commission in Islamabad to ascertain whether the family had presented Shagufta, so that she could be interviewed alone on their premises in confidence. Shagufta was not produced by the family. The vulnerable persons officer also stated that the law had recently changed, which meant that young women marrying at an early age could not bring their spouses into this country until they are 18. Previously they could have done this at 16 years. Shagufta had just reached 16. Thus, if Shagufta was already married, she would not legally be allowed to bring her husband into this country until she reached 18 years old.

Since the family had not complied with the request to produce Shagufta, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office appointed a solicitor to be Shagufta’s ‘legal friend’ who would act on her behalf. The solicitor applied to the High Court in London to make Shagufta a ward of court. A children’s guardian was appointed by the court.

I was asked by the solicitor to write a report that would provide the evidence to suggest that the young woman was vulnerable. The judge agreed to make Shagufta a ward of court until her 18th birthday.

Mrs Rashid and her two sons became the defendants in the procedure since it was felt that they were obstructing the courts. The solicitor became the plaintiff.

The summons read as follows (excerpts taken from original court document): (1) The Minor, Shagufta Rashid, do remain a Ward of this Honourable Court during her minority or until further order. (2) The Defendant do disclose forthwith to the Plaintiff and this Court the whereabouts of the said minor. (3) The Defendant do return forthwith the said Minor to the Jurisdiction of England and Wales. (4) That the Minor may not be married in her minority without leave of this Court (5) There be leave to serve out of this Jurisdiction. (6) There be leave to disclose the Summons, the Orders and evidence herein to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office.

(7) The Cost of this application be provided for.

As a result of the summons being served Shagufta was returned to Britain, is still a ward of court and was subsequently interviewed by the vulnerable persons officer.

We do have the criminal justice system on our side, but we need to be brave enough to use it to try to protect vulnerable young women from being the victims of forced marriage. The education social work service has since learned that Shagufta’s local community was shocked by what had happened. Therefore it is appropriate that in the future constant vigilance is deployed in order to ensure that vulnerable young women are in control of their own destiny. It is never too late to intervene.