ByÂ Matthew Hickley
Last updated at 1:29 AM on 29th September 2008/Mail Online
British Muslim children as young as nine are being forced to marry against their will by their families, campaigners have warned.
Charities supporting victims of forced marriages report growing numbers of young teenagers and children seeking help.
They are urging schools to take tougher action where they suspect pupils are at risk, and to monitor their rolls carefully and raise the alarm when children disappear.Â
Thousands of Britons of Muslims who settled in Britain – mainly young women from the Asian Musulmanic communities – are thought to be victims of forced marriage each year, but concerns are increasingly focused on the plight of underage girls who are being offered for marriage to foreign men when they have barely left primary school.
‘Tip of the iceberg’: British Muslim children as young as nine are being forced to marry against their will by their families
No accurate figures exist for the scale of the problem, although the Government’s Forced Marriage Unit has helped rescue around 60 children aged 15 or under in the past four years – including 11 so far in 2008 – and experts fear that may represent only the tip of the iceberg.
Typically victims are taken overseas by their families on a false pretext and forced to marry. Extreme cases where women rebel against their family’s plans and try to run away have led to so-called ‘honour killings’ or suicides.
Ministers angered campaigners two years ago by dropping plans to make it a criminal offence to force someone to marry, after Muslim groups objected strongly to the plans.
A charity operating a national helpline on forced marriage, Karma Nirvana, yesterday highlighted one incident where a nine-year-old girl from a Pakistani family in the east Midlands was taken into care after her parents told her she was to be married.
Director Jasvinder Sanghera said that on average one child a week aged under 16 had sought assistance since the helpline launched in April.
‘The youngest child we have dealt with was nine years old,’ she said. ‘The girl told her teacher she was going to be forced to marry someone and initially she was not believed.
‘Ultimately, with the help of the Forced Marriage Unit, she was dealt with through child protection procedures. She was assessed and, thankfully, taken into foster care.’
Awaiting their fate: Young brides in Bangladesh, following fears that children are being taken out of schools and forced into marriages abroad
The Forced Marriage Unit, jointly funded by the Home Office and Foreign Office, deals with around 5,000 calls and 300 known cases a year, while a third of all inquiries come from under-18s. Some 15 per cent of cases involve boys being forced to marry.
The youngest victim rescued and repatriated to Britain by the unit was an 11-year-old girl who was flown back from Bangladesh last year after her parents tried to make her marry a local man.
Ms Sanghera, who herself fled home after being threatened with forced marriage at the age of 15, said: ‘I currently have cases involving four children aged 11 to 14 who were forced to marry or were at risk, and have now been made wards of court.Â
‘You don’t just get forced into a marriage at 16 or 17. This is happening to very young children. We certainly have had cases of minors being sexually abused.
‘But we have no idea how many children under 16 are at risk, and this is compounded by a reluctance of schools to engage with the issue. Many schools shy away due to supposed cultural sensitivities.’
She added: ‘These marriages can be prevented by identifying the signs in school or teachers believing pupils when they raise it.’
The problem is believed to be particularly prevalent in Pakistani communities, she said, where many parents arrange to marry their children to first cousins. (“Pakistani communities” is an euphemism for inbred Musulmaniacs from Pakistan who invaded Britain to make it Islamic. There are no Hindus, Buddhists or Chrisitans left in large numbers in the Islamic paradise called Pakistan./ed)Â
The charity is calling for a formal system of headcounts before and after summer holidays, so that schools can identify children who disappear without explanation.
A report by Parliament’s Home Affairs Select Committee earlier this year said more than 2,000 pupils were unaccounted for in just 14 local council areas across England and Wales.
Plans to make forced marriage a specific crime were dropped by ministers in 2006 following a Muslim community backlash, although new laws passed last year gave courts new powers to issue injunctions preventing a young person from marrying or being taken abroad – any breach of which by parents would constitute a crime.