Yvonne Spencer explains why forced marriage is a human rights abuse and should always invoke child protection procedure within a school

The inquest, in January, into the death of the Muslim schoolgirl Shafilea Ahmed, who was murdered after she refused an arranged marriage, highlighted the role of schools in child protection cases. Shafilea’s case should have triggered an inter-agency approach to safeguarding and promoting her welfare. She had spent several weeks in hospital after drinking caustic substances, but remained committed to continuing her education and qualifying as a lawyer. At one stage she ran away from home and tried to obtain local authority housing. She was subsequently taken home by her father, who collected her from school. Screaming, ‘don’t let him take me’, she was forced into his car.

What could the school and the housing authority have done to prevent Shafilea’s murder? This article provides some practical advice for educational professionals — to ensure that child protection takes priority over concerns about political correctness in such cases.

‘There can be no excuse or justification for failing to take adequate steps to protect a vulnerable child, simply because that child’s cultural background would make the necessary action somehow inappropriate. This is not an area in which there is much scope for political correctness.’
Victoria Climbiè inquiry report, paragraph 16.11

Guidance: working together Chapter 10 of the guidance Working Together to Safeguard Children 2006, (in particular paragraph 10.13) states that all children, whatever their religious or cultural background, must receive the same care and safeguards in respect of abuse and neglect.

Forced marriage

In some communities, schools should be concerned when female pupils suddenly stop coming to school — because it could raise suspicion of a forced marriage.

An arranged marriages will take place with the parties’ consent if the pupil is of lawful marriageable age. Where there is a lack of consent the marriage is no longer ‘arranged’ but forced.

The Working Together guidance at paragraph 6.17 states that a forced marriage is a marriage conducted without the full consent of both parties, and one where duress is a factor.

In 2004 the Government extended its definition of domestic violence to include acts perpetrated by extended family members as well as by intimate partners. So, acts such as forced marriage and other so-called ‘honour crimes’, which can include abduction and homicide, now come under the definition of domestic violence.

Many of these acts are committed against children — i.e. girls under 18. The Government’s Forced Marriage Unit has produced guidelines in conjunction with Children’s Social Care and the DfES (as was) on how to identify and support young people who are threatened with forced marriage. The FMU also provides confidential information and assistance to potential victims and concerned professionals.

Warning signs

The guidance explains what the professional should do if s/he suspects that a student may be forced to marry; and what to do if a student seeks help or is going overseas imminently.  Warning signs can include a sudden drop in performance, truancy from lessons and conflicts with parents over continuation of the student’s education. There may be excessive parental restrictions and control, a history of domestic abuse within the family, or extended absence through sickness or overseas commitments. Students may also show signs of depression or self-harming, and there may be a history of older siblings leaving education early to get married. The guidance also gives advice on how to promote debate on the subject within the curriculum.

The justifications Most cases of forced marriage in the UK involve South Asian families. This is partially a reflection of the fact that there is a large established South Asian population in the UK. It is clear, however, that forced marriage is not a solely South Asian phenomenon — there have been cases involving families from East Asia, the Middle East, Europe and Africa.

Some forced marriages take place in the UK with no overseas element, while others involve a partner coming from overseas, or a British citizen being sent abroad. Parents who force their children to marry often justify it as protecting them, building stronger families and preserving cultural or religious traditions. They may not see it as wrong. Forced marriage can never be justified on religious grounds: every major faith condemns it and freely given consent is a pre-requisite of Christian, Jewish, Hindu, Muslim and Sikh marriage.


Often parents believe that they are upholding the cultural traditions of their home countries, when in fact practices and values there have changed. Some parents come under significant pressure from their extended families to get their children married. In some cases there may have been an agreement about marriage whilst the child is still an infant.

Other motivations Other key motivations for forced marriage include:

  • controlling unwanted behaviour and sexuality (including perceived promiscuity or being gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender) — particularly the behaviour and sexuality of women
  • protecting ‘family honour’
  • responding to peer group or family pressure
  • attempting to strengthen family links
  • ensuring that land, property and wealth remain within the family
  • protecting perceived cultural ideals (which can often be misguided)
  • protecting perceived religious ideals that are misguided
  • preventing ‘unsuitable’ relationships — e.g. those outside the ethnic, cultural, religious or caste group
  • assisting claims for residence and citizenship
  • fulfilling long-standing family commitments
A human rights abuse It is important for all professionals to understand the motives behind forced marriage — but these motives should not be accepted as justification for denying children the right to choose a marriage partner.

Forced marriage should be recognised as a human rights abuse — and should always invoke child protection procedure within the school.

The law Although there is no specific criminal offence of ‘forcing someone to marry’ within England and Wales, forced marriage may involve criminal offences. Perpetrators — usually parents or family members — could be prosecuted for offences including: threatening behaviour, assault, kidnap, abduction, imprisonment and in the worse cases murder.

Sexual intercourse without consent is rape, regardless of whether this occurs within the confines of a marriage. A girl who is forced into marriage is likely to be raped and may be raped until she becomes pregnant.


The Forced Marriage Unit states that only rarely will students disclose fear of forced marriage — so a student who fears that she may be forced to marry will often come to the attention of teachers through various behaviours consistent with distress. Students may present with a sudden decline in their performance and say they feel that studying is pointless. Some students may stop attending school altogether — and educational professionals visiting their home may be told that the student is out of the country. In some cases the student may have been locked in a room and not allowed to communicate with anyone. An educational professional may become aware of a conflict between the student and parents about whether the student should be allowed to continue with GCSE or other courses. It is worthwhile checking records to see whether there is a family history of older siblings leaving education early and marrying early.

Take concerns seriously Students need to know that they can discuss matters and that their concerns will be taken seriously. Thought should be given to referring students to an education welfare officer, pastoral tutor or a learning mentor as appropriate.

Schools and colleges can introduce forced marriage into the curriculum by discussing different types of marriage within personal health and social education, citizenship and religious knowledge classes, or within drama, history and sociology classes. They could also develop discussions about marriage within English literature classes — for example when reading Romeo and Juliette, or the book and film Brick Lane.

What to do if a student seeks help

  • The student should be seen immediately in a private place, where the conversation cannot be overheard.
  • The student should be seen on her own, even if she attends with others.
  • Develop a safety plan in case the student is seen i.e. prepare another reason why you are meeting.
  • Explain all options to the student and recognise and respect her wishes. If the student does not want to be referred to the local safeguarding board designated officer, the professional will need to consider whether to respect the student’s wishes — or whether the student’s safety requires further action to be taken. If the professional takes action against the student’s wishes the professional must inform the student.
  • Establish whether there is a family history of forced marriage — i.e. siblings forced to marry.
  • Other indicators may include domestic violence, self-harm, family disputes, unreasonable restrictions e.g. withdrawal from education or missing persons within the family.
  • Advise the student not to travel overseas and discuss the difficulties she may face.
  • Liaise with the designated child protection teacher and seek advice from the Forced Marriage Unit.
  • Liaise with local police and social services to establish if any incidents concerning the family have been reported.
  • If you have concerns for the safety of a student who is less than 18 years old, activate local child protection procedures and use existing protocols for multi-agency liaison (Working Together to Safeguard Children 2006).
  • Refer to the local Police Child Protection Unit if there is any suspicion that there has been a crime or that one may be committed.
  • Liaise with the Police if there are concerns about the safety of the student or the student’s siblings.
  • Refer the student with her consent to the appropriate local
  • and national support groups, and counselling services.
  • If in doubt, consider seeking advice from the Forced Marriage Unit.

Legal Remedies
There are legal remedies social services can take to prevent young people being taken abroad. These include making the student a ward of court or surrendering her passport. Full details of these remedies are set out in the Practice Guidance for Social Workers: Young People and Vulnerable Adults Facing Forced Marriage, 2004 (Foreign and Commonwealth Office et al).

What to do if the student is going abroad imminently

The Forced Marriage Unit advises education professionals to gather

the following information if at all possible — it will help the unit to locate the student and to repatriate her:

  • a photocopy of the student’s passport for retention — encourage her to keep details of her passport number and the place and date of issue
  • as much information as possible about the family (this may need to be gathered discretely)
  • full name and date of birth of student under threat
  • student’s father’s name
  • any addresses where the student may be staying overseas
  • potential spouse’s name
  • date of the proposed wedding
  • the name of the potential spouse’s father if known
  • addresses of the extended family in the UK and overseas

Specific information It is also useful to take information that only the student would know, as this may be helpful during any interview at an embassy or British High Commission — in case another person of the same age is produced pretending to be the student. Professionals should also take details of any travel plans and people likely to accompany the student. Note also the names and addresses of any close relatives remaining in the UK and a safe means to contact the student — a secret mobile telephone, for example,  that will function abroad.

Awareness and sensitivity The national demographics of our country are undergoing rapid change, particularly as Eastern European migrant workers settle and Asian communities migrate from the major cities to smaller towns and villages.

Schools should take time to maintain and build community contacts to ensure that sensitivity is mirrored in equal measure with awareness of the need for effective child protection procedures.

Forced marriage: what educators should not do Do not:

  • treat such allegations merely as domestic issues and send the student back to the family home
  • ignore what the student has told you or dismiss the need for immediate protection
  • approach the student’s family or those with influence within the community, without the express consent of the student, as this will alert them to your concern and may place the student in danger
  • contact the family in advance of any enquires by the Police, social services or the Forced Marriage Unit, either by telephone or letter
  • share information outside child protection information sharing protocols without the express consent of the student
  • breach confidentiality except where necessary in order to ensure the student’s safety
  • attempt to be a mediator

Solicitor advocate Yvonne Spencer is a partner at Fisher Jones Greenwood LLP where she heads the firm’s education and public law team