Education Committee - Children first: the child protection system in EnglandWritten evidence submitted by the Iranian and Kurdish Women’s Rights Organisation (IKWRO)

Summary of Key Points

1. In order to ensure that education professionals are able to identify cases of female genital mutilation, forced marriage and “honour” based violence early on, the government must improve their understanding of these issues and their awareness of the warning signs.

2. There is an urgent need to improve collection and dissemination of data on prevalence of female genital mutilation, forced marriage and “honour” based violence in different parts of the country, and to use this data to ensure that local areas with high prevalence are adequately addressing the problem.

About the Author

3. IKWRO is a registered charity (number 1104550) which provides advice and support to women and girls from the UK’s Middle Eastern communities who are facing forced marriage, honour based violence, female genital mutilation, domestic violence or other forms of abuse.

4. As well as assisting individual women and girls, we provide advice and training for professionals from education and other sectors to build their understanding of issues such as forced marriage and female genital mutilation and to improve their ability to assist women and girls at risk. We also campaign and advocate for better laws and policies to protect the rights of women and girls from ethnic minorities.

5. We will limit our comments on the child protection system to children who are at risk of female genital mutilation (herein FGM), forced marriage and “honour” based violence (herein HBV), since this is our area of expertise.

On whether the child protection system allows for effective identification of, and early help to, children at risk of FGM, forced marriage and HBV

FGM

6. Awareness of what FGM is and who is at risk is still too low among education professionals in the UK. IKWRO regularly provides training to professionals from the education sector on issues including HBV, forced marriage and FGM, and it is our sense that many still do not understand the level of physical and psychological pain that is inflicted on children who are subjected to FGM. Most professionals we speak to also have no awareness of the warning signs that a child may be at risk of FGM, which include the child:

Being from an FGM practising community, particularly if the family is not well integrated into UK society.

Being withdrawn from Personal, Social and Health Education by her parents.

Having older siblings or a mother who have undergone FGM.

Preparing to return to her home country.

Saying that a special ceremony or party is going to be held in her honour, or that she is going to undergo a special procedure.

Talking about a special visitor who is coming from overseas.

7. It is also important that education professionals are able to identify cases where a child has already been subjected to FGM, and understand their role in ensuring that appropriate aftercare can be provided to the child. Because FGM is illegal in the UK, parents will not take their children to a doctor when they are suffering the side effects of the procedure. If a child from an FGM practising community is absent from school for prolonged or repeated periods or returns from a trip overseas withdrawn and upset, and particularly if a child seems to be in physical discomfort, is spending a lot of time in the bathroom or is suffering from constant menstrual or urinary problems, then education professionals, who spend a significant amount of time with children, need to know what they should do. Their intervention can play a vital role in ensuring that the child receives the aftercare they need, that younger siblings are protected and that where appropriate a criminal investigation can be initiated.

8. In February the FGM Coordinator at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office released multi-agency practice guidelines1 which are designed to help professionals from a range of sectors to more easily identify children at risk of FGM and to more rapidly provide help to such children. However IKWRO and many other organisations working on FGM are very concerned that the guidelines have not been widely circulated and are not reaching frontline staff in schools. The guidelines were sent by email to senior officials in local authorities, health trusts and education authorities, but the decision about whether and how to roll them out has been left to local directors. Unlike the Forced Marriage Guidance, these guidelines are not on a statutory footing and there is no obligation on local authorities to implement them.

9. The post of cross government FGM Coordinator was axed as of 1 April 2011, leaving a significant leadership gap. There is a person within the Interpersonal Violence Team at the Home Office, but they are working on other issues alongside FGM. In any case, what they are able to achieve is very limited by the fact that they have little budget for rolling out the FGM guidelines more proactively. They are available on the Department for Education website (and apparently on other websites aimed at teachers, although we could not find these through google search) but these will only be accessed by the most pro-active professionals. Much wider efforts are needed to ensure that all frontline education professionals have the information they need to be able to spot children at risk and protect them.

Forced marriage

10. Forced marriage is not a crime in the UK, although it is recognised as a civil wrong under the Forced Marriage Civil Protection Act 2008. A young person who is at risk of forced marriage or who has already been subjected to it can apply to the courts for a protection order, which bans their family, their spouse and others from taking certain actions—eg going within a certain radius of their home or school, contacting them by telephone, taking them out of the country and of course contracting them into marriage.

11. The young person can apply for a protection order themselves, or this can be done on their behalf by the police, the local authority and other agencies. In order for this to happen it is vital that they have access to information about their rights under the law, and that they receive the necessary support from professionals such as teachers, school counsellors and the social services.

12. In 2008 the government produced statutory guidance on forced marriage setting out that all Chief Executives, directors and senior managers have an obligation to ensure that their staff are aware of their responsibilities and obligations when they come across forced marriage cases. The guidelines are based on the “one chance” rule, that is their staff may only have one chance to speak to a potential victim and if the victim is allowed to walk out of the door without support, that one chance might be wasted.

13. The forced marriage guidance is now three years old, yet in many schools there is still a total lack of understanding of the issue. Through our outreach work with schools and colleges, as well as through the training we provide, IKWRO regularly encounters education professionals who simply do not understand how serious forced marriage is, who have no idea of how to spot the warning signs and who do not realise that they have obligations to protect young people at risk. We can only assume that if the school staff are not aware of the issues, then most likely the students do not have access to any information about their rights, in the form of posters, leaflets or class discussions.

14. Worryingly, what we have also found is that in schools based in communities where forced marriage is very common, the teachers and other school staff know that it is happening but treat it as a cultural practice, and many still lack understanding of the difference between arranged and forced marriage. FM can mean abduction to another country, emotional, psychological and physical pressure to get married, often to someone much older than them. Once married the girl will be repeatedly raped, may be subjected to domestic violence, may be forced to get pregnant and may be kept abroad for a long time, cut off from any assistance. When she returns to the UK she will usually be forced to sponsor a visa for her husband. Education professionals who think that forced marriage is a cultural practice simply have no real idea of what happens to the young women who are subjected to it.

15. We recently attended a safety fair at a London sixth form college with a large number of students from Middle Eastern backgrounds. These communities are growing quickly in the UK at the present time, and many of the girls we spoke to were recently arrived from countries including Iraq, Afghanistan, Lebanon and Morocco and had no idea of their rights under UK law. We also spoke to the student counsellor about the issue of forced marriage. She said that she had had many students who were being forced to marry against their will. When asked what assistance she provided, she said that she would “just offer a shoulder to cry on”. She was sympathetic to students, but she seemed to take the practice of forced marriage for granted. She had no concept of the fact that is a violation of human rights, and that she should contact the police, the Forced Marriage Unit or a specialist organisation like IKWRO if she had any concerns about the student.

16. Our Outreach Officer has since returned to that particular college to provide training on forced marriage to the student counsellor and other staff. However, NGOs like IKWRO cannot reach everyone. Many organisations are facing funding crises at the moment and have to focus their operations on frontline work with victims only. It is the government’s responsibility to ensure that their guidance has been rolled out in schools, and the Department for Education need to take the lead on this. We are very concerned that when the student counsellor—the person specifically charged with students’ welfare—in an inner city college with a large number of at-risk young people does not understand the issue of forced marriage, this is reflective of the bigger picture.

17. At the end of last year the government undertook a review of the implementation of the forced marriage guidance. Almost a year later the results of the review have not been made public. During that time the Home Affairs Select Committee has published a report on forced marriage,2 in which they have also highlighted the failure by some schools to adequately protect young people at risk. The Committee’s report emphasised the need for the Department for Education to “provide more active support to teachers to enable them to carry out a role which may risk upsetting cultural sensibilities but is nonetheless vital for child protection”. It also recommend that “Ofsted inspectors pay particular attention to policies in place to deal with forced marriage in their assessments of the safeguarding arrangements of schools where pupils are likely to be at risk of forced marriage”.

Honour based violence

18. We find that awareness of HBV is even lower than that of forced marriage. This is partly due to a lack of leadership on this issue at government level. While the Association of Chief Police Officers is supposed to champion this issue, they have not convened a national meeting on HBV for over two years, and have never reported on progress in relation to their 2008 HBV strategy. There is an assumption that the Forced Marriage Unit are taking care of HBV but their remit is in fact very clearly limited to forced marriage, and as a result there is a real policy gap in this area.

19. At the level of schools, this can often mean total ignorance of the problem. For example we recently handled a case involving a 15 year old girl who was suffering severe HBV from the age of 12, when her father learnt that she was mixing with boys at school. The girl was from a part of London where the Kurdish community is highly concentrated, and where school staff really should be aware of the issue of HBV. On one occasion the girl was kept back from school for a meeting, and she was so afraid that her father would be angry that she begged the teachers to ring home and explain why she would be coming home late. This should have alerted the school to the fact that something was wrong, but they simply put it down to the father being strict. The girl had also had prolonged absences from school after she had been beaten by her father (one instances with a metal pole and in one case a saw) and when he had burnt her hands on the stove. Again the school did not pick up the warning signs or offer any protection to the girl.

Factors affecting the quality of decision-making in referral and assessment, and variations across the country

20. One of the issues which we often come up against is the question of whether local authorities, and indeed school boards, give priority to issues such as FGM, forced marriage and HBV. In the London borough of Islington for example the response to forced marriage and HBV has been very robust, because the local head of children’s services Sarah Pepper has been very committed to tackling these issues. Sarah has encouraged her staff to undertake training and to build their understanding (in line with their responsibilities under the Forced Marriage Statutory Guidance) and has built strong links with expert NGOs through the Islington Harmful Traditional Practices Forum.

21. As discussed above, there have been challenges in ensuring that local authorities implement the Forced Marriage Guidance, and we are currently awaiting the report from the government’s review of the Forced Marriage Guidance. With FGM, the situation is even more difficult as the FGM multi agency practice guidelines are not on a statutory footing, and it is entirely up to local authorities to decide what to do with them. In some areas for example Bristol where there is already strong commitment to tackling FGM, the guidelines are probably seen as a useful resource and are likely to be rolled out. However in other areas, including many with large FGM practising communities, we are concerned that this is not happening. The London borough of Lambeth for example has a large number of immigrants, including many from FGM practicing communities. However when IKWRO attended a conference to input into Lambeth’s Violence Against Women and Girls Strategy last March we found that the strategy contained very limited commitments on FGM, and made no mention of the FGM guidelines which had been released a month previously. When we asked about this we were told that FGM was not a priority in Lambeth. IKWRO followed this up after the conference, and ensured that commitments to roll out the FGM guidelines were included in Lambeth’s final strategy, but we were not able to do the same with every local authority in the country.

22. Part of the problem is that there is no proper data on the prevalence of FGM in different parts of the UK so staff in local authorities or schools may believe that FGM is not a priority in their area, when in fact there may be many girls and young women at risk. With forced marriage and HBV many local police forces are now noting incidents in their recording systems, although this data is not published anywhere and it is unclear whether it is used. It is vital that the government finds ways to improve the national data picture in relation to prevalence of issues such as FGM, forced marriage and HBV, in order to ensure that these practices are given the priority they deserve in local areas where they are taking place.

23. We have also found that there is a lack of understanding of which communities practice FGM. While many practitioners associate FGM with Muslim communities from countries in the horn of Africa such as Somalia, Sudan and Egypt, FGM is practiced in Muslim and Christian countries all across the continent of Africa, and in a number of Middle Eastern and Asian countries. In Iraqi Kurdistan for example it affects 80% of women in some areas, yet prevention initiatives rarely focus on this community. It is vital that professionals have a broader understanding of which communities are practising FGM, particularly in areas where practising communities are concentrated.

Appropriate thresholds for intervention, including arguments for and against removing children from their families

24. In situations where it is feared that a child is at risk of FGM, education professionals have a duty to inform social care or the police, in line with Section 47 of the Children Act 1989. It is vital that education professionals, who are not after all experts in FGM, have the confidence to make this referral. It is then up to those sectors which are experts in safeguarding children to decide what action should be taken. Teachers and other education professionals should be clear about their duties to report, and should not be afraid of getting it wrong or offending the parents or community.

25. Many parents carry out FGM because of pressure from the wider family or community, or because they genuinely believe that they are doing what is best for their child, and they may otherwise be attentive and loving parents. In such cases there are mechanisms through which children can be protected from FGM while still remaining within the family home, for example through Prohibited Steps Orders. When both parents are engaged in an open discussion of the health risks and side effects of the practice, and when they realise that they are under threat of law, they can often be persuaded not to carry the procedure out. Children at risk of FGM should only be removed from their parents when there are clear indicators that the parents will disobey any order, and when all alternatives have been exhausted.

26. With forced marriage and HBV the situation is different, in that once the family has decided that their daughter must marry (or that she has damaged the family honour and should be punished) it is often very difficult to persuade them otherwise. Teachers and other education professionals need to be very clear that they must never contact or mediate with the family if they suspect that a young person is at risk of forced marriage or honour based violence. This will only alert the family that the authorities are aware of what they are doing, and can put the young person at further risk.

Whether the child protection policies and practices of non-social work agencies and Government departments assist professionals to work together in the interests of the child

One of the challenges with current government policy is that it leaves children who are not permanent residents or British nationals without protection. The government must urgently revisit the position of non resident children in relation to FGM and other safeguarding issues.

An additional challenge is the wider context of funding cuts in the UK. As discussed above the government has not provided sufficient funds for dissemination of the FGM multi agency guidelines and the cross government FGM Coordinator post has been axed, both of which have meant that professionals are not getting the information they need.

We also have concerns in relation to delays in releasing the government’s review of implementation of the Forced Marriage Guidance. We suspect that these delays are taking place because the review will probably highlight high level failings in implementation at a time when there is no money to tackle these.

We are also concerned by threats to policing budgets and to the National Policing Improvement Agency, which is tasked with rolling out training to the police. The NPIA consulted IKWRO and other expert organisations on a new training module on FGM, forced marriage and HBV a year ago but the training has never materialised, while awareness of these issues among many frontline officers is much too low. At present it is not clear whether the NPIA will even continue to exist. Moreover in the context of wider cuts to policing (where the government have pledged that they will not cut officers on the streets) we are concerned that there will not be enough qualified people to do the complex investigative and safeguarding work which is necessary to protect children from these forms of violence.

November 2011

1 These are available to download at http://www.fco.gov.uk/en/travel-and-living-abroad/when-things-go-wrong/fgm/.

2 Report can be downloaded from http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm201012/cmselect/cmhaff/880/88002.htm.

Prepared 16th November 2012