LONDON, June 27 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – British teachers should be vigilant ahead of the long summer holidays for warning signs that parents might take their children abroad to marry them off or undergo female genital mutilation (FGM), experts warned on Monday.
The end of the school term “marks the start of the cutting season where young girls are taken abroad and brutally mutilated by their families,” said Aneeta Prem, founder of Freedom Charity, which campaigns on forced marriage and FGM.
Girls and boys are at risk of being taken abroad for forced marriage, she told a conference for police, teachers and health and social workers in Stevenage, north of London.
There are an estimated 8,000 to 10,000 forced marriages or threats of forced marriage in Britain every year, experts at the conference said.
Girls threatened with forced marriage might appear anxious, depressed or withdrawn, lose interest in schoolwork or disappear from social networks such as Facebook, they said.
They also may harm themselves or develop an eating disorder.
Teachers should be alert if a girl’s family suddenly restricts her movements, arranges for her to be escorted home from school by older brothers or if she says her parents are taking her on a holiday to meet someone, Prem said.
Summer holidays in Britain begin in July and usually last about six weeks but can be longer.
Forced marriage is linked to a slew of abuses including kidnapping, domestic violence, serial rape and even murder, conference experts said.
Many cases involve girls from South Asian backgrounds, but Britain’s Forced Marriage Unit (FMU) said it has handled cases involving more than 90 countries since 2005.
Prem said the youngest suspected case of forced marriage she had seen involved a 6-year-old girl with special needs.
The practice is illegal under British law, even if carried out abroad, but police and teachers often are reluctant to intervene for fear of being branded racist, they said.
But Prem said intervention into possible forced marriage or honor abuse – violence carried out on someone believed to have shamed their family or community – could save lives.
“If someone is going to call you a racist, well, rather that than allow someone to be murdered,” she said.
The conference heard about the case of teenager Banaz Mahmod, a Kurdish girl in London killed by her family in 2006 after being spotted kissing a boyfriend, having left an abusive marriage. She knew she was in danger, but police ignored a plea for help.
Comfort Momoh, one of the nation’s top FGM experts, said alarm bells should ring if a girl talks about going on holiday for a special ceremony or shows a marked change in behavior following the summer break.
FGM can cause chronic pain, infections and problems with urination and menstruation so teachers should be alert if a girl takes frequent toilet breaks, cannot sit comfortably on the floor and regularly misses school, Momoh said.
Katie Furniss, joint head of the FMU, which said it helped more than 1,200 people last year, warned that teachers and social workers should not try to mediate with the family in a forced marriage case and should contact authorities such as the FMU.
“There have been cases of people being murdered while attempts at mediation were made,” she said.
(Reporting by Emma Batha, Editing by Ellen Wulfhorst for the Thomson Reuters Foundation)