London, UK - British authorities fear that hundreds of teenage girls travelling from the UK during the current school holidays risk being forced into family-arranged marriages, with one welfare charity urging potential victims to conceal a metal spoon in their underwear to alert airport security staff to their plight.
The UK government's Forced Marriage Unit earlier this month put welfare services and airports on alert after dealing with 400 cases between June and August last year. Officials have also distributed information cards urging those with concerns to seek help or call a confidential helpline.
But Karma Nirvana, a charity that supports victims of forced marriage, said it had advised some girls who suspect they are being taken abroad to be married to use a hidden spoon to set off airport scanners, as a last-ditch way to seek help and avoid boarding a plane with family members.
"When they go through security, it will highlight this object in a private area and, if 16 or over, they will be taken to a safe space where they have that one last opportunity to disclose they're being forced to marry," Natasha Rattu, Karma Nirvana's operations manager, told the AFP news agency.
"We've had people ring and say it's helped them and got them out of a dangerous situation."
Sameem Ali, a councillor in Manchester and author of Belonging, a book about her own experience of forced marriage, said girls in the northern city had come up with similar strategies such as wearing metal bangles to trigger airport scanners. If they are being closely chaperoned by relatives, airport security might be the girls' only opportunity to seek help before boarding the plane.
Official efforts failing
But Ali told Al Jazeera that official efforts to tackle forced marriages were still failing to reach many young girls in vulnerable and desperate situations, and warned that even proposed legislation to criminalise forcing someone to marry may prove counterproductive.
|UK to rule forced marriage a criminal offence
Ali was taken to Pakistan and forced to marry by her parents as a 13-year-old in the early 1980s, having been abused since she was seven years old. Within a year she was pregnant and returned to the UK to give birth. Her brother was subsequently imprisoned for plotting to kidnap and kill her after she finally ran away from her family at the age of 18.
"I had a baby in this country aged 14 and no questions were asked. That was nearly 30 years ago and it is still as prevalent today. It could have happened yesterday," she said.
"Still nobody is asking the right questions and I can tell you this: there are going to be a lot of young people missing at the end of the year. The people who should be protecting them have put in a lot of red tape and bureaucracy to cover their own backs."
The six-week school summer break is seen as peak season for forced marriage cases, with many unsuspecting brides-to-be believing they are simply going abroad on holiday or to visit relatives.
"The long period away gives parents and perpetrators the opportunity to get somebody married because they are out of people's consciousness," Aneeta Prem, the president of Freedom Charity, a child welfare organisation, told Al Jazeera.
"If you didn't come back after the Easter holiday, people would be more alert. But if you don't come back after the summer break, people think maybe you've moved area or moved schools."
'The tip of the iceberg'
The Forced Marriage Unit last year handled almost 1,500 cases. Eight out of 10 of those involved young women and girls, with 35 percent under the age of 17. The youngest suspected victim was two years old, while most cases involved families with connections to Pakistan and other South Asian countries.
But campaign groups fear the actual number of forced marriages involving British citizens may be far higher. "[Reported cases] are just the tip of the iceberg because a lot of young people don't have the confidence to ring up or speak to somebody. Often they don't even know what is going to happen to them," said Prem.
Forced marriages are a scourge which denigrates the victim and can create untold human misery. It is vital that forced marriage protection orders have real teeth.
Under current law in England, Wales and Northern Ireland, those who believe they are at risk of forced marriage, or their relations, friends or local authorities, can seek a protection order to prevent them being taken abroad or married against their will. More than 100 protection orders are currently in place in England, according to government figures.
But because protection orders are presently a matter of civil law, anyone breaching one can only be charged with contempt of court, which carries a maximum prison sentence of two years.
That approach was harshly criticised last month by a high court judge, who threw out a civil case brought by police against a mother and another female relative alleged to have breached a protection order by forcing her teenage daughter to marry.
"Forced marriages are a scourge which denigrates the victim and can create untold human misery. It is vital that forced marriage protection orders have real teeth," said James Holman, the judge.
The government has announced plans to introduce legislation next year to criminalise the breaching of protection orders, a move that would bring the rest of the UK in line with Scotland, which passed similar legislation in 2011 under its separate legal system.
Prem said the threat of criminal sanctions was a necessary measure that would further raise public awareness and provide added protection for those at risk. But other campaigners are more sceptical, arguing that criminalisation could drive the practice of forced marriage further underground.
Ali said many families were already taking advantage of dual nationality arrangements to ensure that young people forced into marriage remained beyond the reach of British law once they were abroad, and that it would be very difficult under criminal law to prove that someone had been forced to marry.
"Criminalisation will make it worse, absolutely," she said. "It will highlight the issue, but whether a person can be helped will depend on their circumstances."
People don't want to tread on the toes of culture. But it's not a cultural issue, it's a child abuse issue, and we have to start tackling it as that.
In Scotland, Elaine McLaughlin of Hemat Gryffe, a charity supporting women from ethnic minorities, said nobody had been criminally charged with breaking a forced marriage protection order since the legislation had been introduced.
"Among some of the young people there has been a lot of discussion around that they didn't want their parents to go to court," McLaughlin told Al Jazeera. "Certainly it could be driven underground, but there are options for people in Scotland. There is possibility for redress because the legislation makes it possible for the person to have the marriage annulled."
Almost half of the cases reported to the Forced Marriage Unit in the UK involve Pakistan, with Bangladesh and India accounting for a further 19 percent; figures that partially reflect the well-established presence in the UK of large ethnic communities from South Asia and growing awareness of the issue in those communities. Cases were reported involving 60 countries in total.
Many campaigners argue that the traditionally cautious treatment of forced marriage as a culturally sensitive issue amounts to condoning a practice that should be unacceptable anywhere in the modern world.
"People don't want to tread on the toes of culture. But it's not a cultural issue, it's a child abuse issue, and we have to start tackling it as that," said Ali. "What law says you are allowed to force a 12-year-old into marriage and force them to be raped? No law at all."