Local authorities are not prepared for an increase in cases of child marriage in England and Wales as COVID-19 lockdown begins to ease, according to the Iranian and Kurdish Women’s Rights Organisation (IKWRO).
The nonprofit — founded in 2002 to protect girls and women from honour-based violence, forced marriage, child marriage, female genital mutilation (FGM), and domestic violence — has expressed concerns that social workers lack proper training and do not keep records of the children most at risk.
IKWRO has written to local authorities, urging them to note every potential case of child marriage, as it emerged through Freedom of Information (FOI) requests that 56% of the departments responsible for children’s social care do not keep records of those at risk of child marriage.
Although FOI data suggests that 165 children in England and Wales were at risk of child marriage between 2018-2019, and 280 were at risk of honour-based abuse, 66 local authorities responded by confirming there was no process for recording children in danger of either.
Thank you @hansummers for highlighting the urgent need for local authorities to identify and support those at risk of #childmarriage - we know that too many are slipping through the net. https://t.co/dReG6qwJb7— IKWRO (@IKWRO) May 18, 2020
In reality, the number of child marriage cases in the UK are likely to be far higher.
In 2018, the Forced Marriage Unit — a collaboration between the UK’s Foreign Office and Home Office that leads on the government’s child marriage work — gave advice or support to 1,507 cases, a third of which involved girls under the age of 18. That’s a 13% increase on the average of 1,338 annual cases recorded from 2011 to 2017. There’s no data available yet for cases across 2019.
Diana Nammi, the founder of IKWRO, has insisted that a national review must investigate how children’s social care services in Britain record and respond to child marriage — as the FOI requests found that even in areas of high prevalence, like Birmingham and Bradford, there was no process for recording which children might be at risk.
“We know through years working with survivors as well as data collected from police forces that they affect nearly every local authority in the country,” Nammi told the Guardian.
“Social workers have a crucial role to play in recording and responding to these cases,” she added. “But if they are handled incorrectly, the consequences can be fatal. It is vital to record every case so the adequate resources are in place.”
A government spokesperson maintained that they’re “working closely with the police and charities [so] forced marriage protection orders remain a priority for the family courts during the pandemic.”
Nammi believes that child marriage cases will only increase as lockdown eases, given that the minors at risk will become more visible to social services staff as many areas of society reopen.
“At present with schools closed and restrictions on movement, many at-risk children are not interacting with professionals who should be able to spot the signs and refer them to social services for protection,” Nammi said.
“As the lockdown measures begin to lift, now more than ever, social services must be equipped to properly understand the dynamics of ‘honour’ and be ready to safeguard children,” she continued. “If they fail to do this, many will be left vulnerable to severe, lifelong harm.”
And in a message to Global Citizen, Nammi urged the police and social services to respond right away to calls from women and girls at risk of child marriage, honour-based abuse, and FGM.
"This might be the only opportunity for them to contact you — if they are living with the perpetrator, they might not be able to contact again," she said. "It’s important to take their calls seriously, record them, and act immediately.”
Payzee Mahmod, a child marriage survivor and ambassador at IKWRO, told Global Citizen that she felt the agencies that existed to support her never had the right expertise. Both Mahmod and her sister were subjected to FGM as children and coerced into marrying much older men in London when they were teenagers.
But while Mahmod managed to escape her marriage, her sister was the victim of a so-called “honour killing”. Her father and uncle were among those found guilty of her murder — and Mahmod now spearheads a campaign to ban child marriage in England and Wales. Children aged 16 and 17 can still legally marry here with parental consent.
Mahmod told Global Citizen that there was no mandatory training across social services and no national monitoring board to record the numbers. It can therefore be challenging for local authorities to offer support to women and girls who have found themselves increasingly vulnerable throughout the lockdown in March and April.
“What IKWRO is seeing is that there are always so many barriers to women and girls who are at risk of honour-based abuse from reaching help — many don’t even know it is their right not to face this abuse,” Mahmod said. “Currently ... girls are under even more surveillance, as a result of lockdown vulnerable people are controlled now more than ever.”
“We believe more and more plans are being made for children to be coerced into child marriage as pressure at home builds up,” she added.
Globally, a report from humanitarian aid organisation World Vision has found that an additional 2 million girls could be at risk of child marriage in the next two years because of the pandemic.
It warned that rising levels of poverty might force desperate families to sell their daughters into marriage just to survive, a common practice in communities faced with starvation.
The United Nations also estimated that there might now be 13 million more child marriages over the course of the next 10 years, as the economic consequences of COVID-19 had led to support programmes facing funding cuts or significant delays.
If you or somebody you know is in danger of being forced into a child marriage, you can call the IKWRO for support on 0207 920 6460. If you’re in immediate danger, call 999. For more information about support, advice, counselling, training, or to call out-of-hours in a number of different languages, visit their website here.