Why the school summer break is a crucial period for the Forced Marriage Unit
IT is a warm, sticky but lovely summer’s day when I meet Olaf Henricson-Bell at the Foreign Office in Central London.
He is the Joint Head of the Forced Marriage Unit (FMU), set up in September 2005 to help UK nationals who have been victims of forced marriages.
I was invited to speak with Olaf ahead of a crucial period for the unit.
The summer holidays are fast approaching and while for some it will be a chance to enjoy the delights of a school break, for others it will bring something all together chilling – a potential forced marriage.
Last year over 1,700 forced marriages were reported to the unit, with the number tending to see a sharp increase during the summer period.
“For the majority of victims their life is simply taken away from them,” Olaf explains. “They are often at the stage of realising who they are, what they want to do in life, where they want to go and who they want to spend their life with, learning about their personality and preferences when they are suddenly taken overseas and married. “When they return they may not be allowed to return to school or work, instead being made to carry out chores. Their life is taken away from then, and our role is to help give people back that choice.”
So what lies at the heart of forced marriages? It’s definitely not, Olaf says, a case of culture or religion.
“People will talk about forced marriages, including the perpetrators themselves, as being part of some culture or religion but there is never any evidence for this,” he says.
“Some people will tell their sons and daughters that they have to do this in order to be a good Muslim, Hindu or Sikh but when you ask them to explain where in the religious scriptures or doctrine it says that, they never can.”
While Olaf admits some 60% of cases involve those from the Pakistani community, he is quick to clarify how geographically widespread the problem is.
“It is important to remember that there are also a lot of cases form the Middle East, the horn of Africa including Somalia, Eastern Europe, Germany and even from America,” he says.
So is Britain seeing an increase in forced marriage cases? Statistics are misleading Olaf admits, saying there are huge numbers of forced marriages that go unreported.
“People don’t walk around with t-shirts saying that they have been forced into marriage. However we have seen an increase in the number of referrals. We have roughly about 5,000 to 10,000 referrals each year for UK nationals either here in England or abroad. Out of the 1700 that actually contacted the Forced Marriage Unit last year, we dealt with 400 of them from start to finish.
“But these figures are just the tip of the iceberg” warns Olaf. “The figure is likely to be increasingly more.”
So what of the victims? Alarming figures reveal how men are falling prey to forced marriages.
“We have had 65% more men call us last year than in previous years,” Olaf admits.
“In 2009, 14% of those who called us were men and in previous years this has been between 14% and 16%.”
But he admits the figure “is probably a lot higher, as it is often harder for men to come forward. Sometimes they are embarrassed, other times they feel it is not macho to seek help.”
Most male victims are aged from 15 to 24, but the unit recently received a call to its helpline from a 62-year-old man.
“Forced marriages is all about controlling a persons life, be it controlling the way they dress, the way they live or even their sexuality,” says Olaf.
“Many gay and bisexual men are forced to marry as their family who believe marriage will cure their sexuality. We once received a call to our out of hours helpline from a teacher in Leicester who was receiving text messages from a student. The youngster was locked in his room after his brother had read his journal expressing feelings for another man. The family were having a meeting to decide whether to send the youngster back to India to get married.”
But there’s also another sinister area that the FMU are actively researching – that of disabled males.
“Those who suffer from disabilities are often forced into marriage as parents and families require a carer for their child and hope that marriage will cure them or normalise them of their disability and rid them of the stigma,” admits Olaf.
“Almost half of these particular cases involve men, who are married off so that their new partner can care for them. We are currently supporting research into this area,” he adds. “It just goes to show that the motivating factor for a forced marriage can be so varied. It is not just about having a boyfriend or girlfriend that the family disagrees upon – although this is usually the case”.
So how is the FMU dealing with the issue?
Olaf admits it’s a case of agencies and community groups coming together to tackle the problem.
“Forced marriages require a joined response much more than any other area. With these cases there is wide range of implications; often there are domestic violence issues and community relationships at stake and severe consequences when this is handled wrong,” he says.
“Therefore we need to join up the police, the social workers, the teachers and the Non Government Organisations. If we had to identify one group who have had the most influence in this country it would be the Non Government Organisations as well as the community organisations who have put forced marriages on the map. It is very important that we join up all these strands.”
The FMU creates awareness about the issue each year, staging and leafleting at over 100 events across the UK. And working closely with non government agencies is also vital. “The most amount of referrals come from these agencies,” Olaf admits.
Up and down the country the FMU is also actively engaging with schools. Teachers are now becoming more aware of the issue and are spotting potential warning signs.
Olaf reveals the FMU is currently looking at ways of incorporating forced marriages into the National Curriculum. Just last month they launched the first ever E- Learning tool for Forced Marriages tailored to professionals and agencies.
Heightened awareness of the problematic issue can only be a good things, admits Olaf.
“People are less scared to get involved now than they were before and this a positive change for society,” he says.
“Whereas previously it would have been seen as being insensitive to another culture or religion, people are now aware that forced marriages are an abuse of human rights and can involve crimes such as rape and child abuse”.
Yet, despite this, he does admit a lot more needs to be done.
“If you search ‘forced marriage’ in most search engines, the Forced Marriage Unit will be the first result. However, we are a very small unit, consisting of only seven individuals and appreciate that a lot more needs to be done. Not everyone who needs to know about us knows about us and this is something we need to focus on.”
If you need any help or advice about Forced Marriages you can contact The Forced Marriage Unit on 0207 008 0151 or email email@example.com.
By Zeenat Moosa