Swedish Girls Who Are At Risk Of Forced Marriage Are Being Told To Hide Spoons In Their Underwear

The "spoon technique" sets off alarm bells at the airport for girls who need help.

Swedish girls who are being taken abroad against their will are being advised to hide a spoon in their underwear before passing through metal detectors during airports' security screening processes.

The unusual step is intended as a last resort to help rescue potential victims of female genital mutilation (FGM) and forced marriage. The hope is that if a girl hides a spoon in her underwear, she'll set off the metal detectors and be pulled aside by authorities, at which point she will be able to speak to someone privately. Per Reuters, Gothenburg, the second largest city in Sweden, made headlines this week when it recommended the practice.

Karma Nirvana, the leading British charity fighting honor killings and forced marriages, is the organization who came up with the tactic. 

"The spoon in the underwear is literally a last resort," Natasha Manota, the head of development and learning for Karma Nirvana, told A Plus. "We wouldn't be expecting people to do that in the main, we'd be expecting them to obviously hear the story, hear the noise we're creating about forced marriage and learn about services like ours that exist so they can get help before it got to the stage of them being taken out of the country."

London, United Kingdom - March 11, 2017: Million Women Rising. A Million Women Rising is a march by only women to protest the violence against women around the world.
London, United Kingdom - March 11, 2017: Million Women Rising. A Million Women Rising is a march by only women to protest the violence against women around the world. Shutterstock / Ms Jane Campbell

Karma Nirvana operates a national hotline in the United Kingdom for victims and survivors of honor-based abuse and forced marriages. A few years ago, one of the hotline call handlers spoke to a girl who feared she was going to be forced into marriage and transported out of the country. The helper suggested tucking a spoon into her underwear so an airport security guard would pull her aside. The quick thinking of the hotline helper was then featured in a post Manota wrote, and it began to catch on.

"If the staff at the security check at the airport spot a girl with a spoon in her pants, they take her aside and talk to her in a separate room," Katarina Idegård, who works as a coordinator against honor-based violence in Gothenburg, told A Plus in an email. "They contact the police since it's a crime to prepare for FGM and the social services to take care of the girl. If there is an acute actual risk of FGM for the girl, we have a law that makes it possible to take the child away from the parents temporarily and give the child the care it needs somewhere else than at home."

Karma Nirvana also conducts training sessions for airport security officers to keep an eye out for the "spoon technique," as Manota calls it, along with other signs that a girl in transit might be leaving the country for a forced marriage or FGM. Both FGM and forced marriages are illegal and punishable by prison sentences in Sweden. 

Shelby Quest, the director of Equality Now's America office, a human rights organization that works to promote and protect the rights of women and girls across the world, had never heard of the technique before being contacted by A Plus. But it made sense.

"The idea — especially for girls who understand that they might be at risk — of finding a way for them to call for help, is very important," Quest told A Plus. "It's obviously part of a bigger approach."

Manota said Karma Nirvana was conscious that some traffickers or perpetrators of violence against women may be tipped off about the practice via the organization's effort to spread the word. But she emphasized, again, that this is a last resort — more than anything Karma Nirvana is hoping the shocking nature of the idea helps make some noise about their organization and others that can help women and girls in danger.

Manota also said that it's not the only unusual tactic it has used in the past. In fact, the organization has learned over the years that hotlines like theirs experience a spike in calls during the holiday season when school is let out. Because girls aren't attending school, it's a safer time for potential traffickers to take them away without being noticed. In response to this, Karma Nirvana has encouraged schools to post exam timetables that don't actually correspond to real exams. That way, girls who are coming up on the end of the school year and feel in danger can say they are leaving to go to an exam, an unsuspicious reason to leave the house, and then get help.

"There are some exceptional cases where the victims do not know until the day of travel that they are going to be taken abroad," Manota explained. "So in that very exceptional circumstance where the parents or family members stop them in the middle of the night for a flight to the airport the only thing they have access to is a spoon. People have used the 'spoon technique,' as we call it, and it has prevented them from being taken out of the country so it's definitely worked."

While it may sound a bit absurd, Quest emphasized that it's anything but. FGM and forced marriage are larger issues than most people — especially Americans — might imagine. Idegård said the National Board of Health and Welfare estimated in 2015 that nearly 38,000 girls in and women living in Sweden may have undergone FGM, about 7,000 of whom were under the age of 18. 

"We don't have a really good handles on the numbers but we do know it's under-represented," Quest said. "A common misconception is that this only happens in Africa or certain groups or religions. It's happening across all religions, all ethnicities."

Cover image via  SUPREEYA-ANON / Shutterstock.

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