Shamima Begum has lost her citizenship on dubious legal and moral grounds with the argument being made that she has in effect been made stateless, which is against international law. It seems that the removal of citizenship was linked to the vitriol she has received in the media and the consequent impact that this has had on public opinion – polls appear to show high numbers of the public in favour of the move. The fact that she was a sexually exploited child has been given little or no attention in the media, despite all we now know about child development and grooming.
Shamima left the UK in 2015 as what appears to have been a groomed 15 year-old to join ISIS/Daesh. She was legally, technically, in all senses, a child. Apparently when she arrived in Syria in 2015 she ‘was put in a house waiting to be married’ and within 10 days, she became the wife of a 23-year-old. At the time, there appeared to be great concern and sympathy for Shamima and the two school friends who left with her.
The tide has changed greatly, however. Shamima has been framed in a sensational and derogatory manner as a “jihadist-bride”. The focus has not been on the death and misery she has experienced (she describes the death of two children from malnutrition), nor on what is presumably her confused and traumatised state of mind, but on her proclaimed lack of remorse and regret for leaving for Syria.
Her wish to return home to the UK has been met in the political, media and popular arenas with anger and disdain. There are 400 others who have returned home to the UK from Syria who had travelled to join ISIS/Daesh but Shamima has been met with particular anger. Reportedly, her picture is being used for target practice at a shooting range in the Wirral. Even the interviewing ITV journalist responded to the 19 year old’s distress that her baby was trapped in the camp with the retort: ‘you’ve done this to your son, this is the consequence of your actions‘; insisting to her that this dire situation is her own fault.
It is inescapable therefore that there is particular vitriol reserved for females and children (Shamima was both on leaving) who don’t fit the stereotype of their group – children as helpless, women as caring, and so on. We see many other examples of this tendency in high profile cases – think of the media and public frenzy around the killers of Jamie Bulger. They were and continue to be particularly reviled because unlike other killers of children they were aged 9 and 10 years, though sadly small children die at the hands of adults every week in the UK (a little-known fact).
There is a distinct lack of transparency around the circumstances in which the Home Secretary may revoke citizenship (it is permitted in cases “conducive to the public good”). Revoking her citizenship implies that Shamima has engaged in criminal actions. Little consideration appears to have been given, either in that decision or in narratives about Shamima in the media, that children are to have special treatment when it comes to criminal matters because of their still evolving capacities.
The UK has agreed to abide by the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) and other international instruments and standards. Article 40 of the CRC states that children must be dealt with in “a manner appropriate to their well-being and proportionate to the offence” suspected; that there should be diversion from the courts; and, like everyone, that children are to have due process rights, such as the presumption of innocence.
There are special laws and treatment for children accused of crimes in the UK and elsewhere – minimum ages of criminal responsibility, different courts, and different sentences, for example. This is because, as we are all aware, the younger one is, the less experienced one will be when it comes to decision-making. Even armed with this information it is not, however, always easy to know how to treat under-18 decisions when it comes to the law. This is for many reasons, including the fact that there are many under-18s making good and effective decisions every day. There are powerful arguments, for example, to extend the vote to under-18s because of the capacity of young people to process and consider information (note Scotland’s positive experiences of including 16- and 17-year-olds in elections).
Yet emerging research in neurobiology about the developing brain shows that it would be unwise to assume that adolescents and adults have identical decision-making capacities. Available research suggests that there is an important transition in decision-making between 15 and 19 years. Neuroscientist Jay Giedd states that in adolescence the brain simply has not reached its full decision-making potential, and coupled with this it is a time of experimentation:
Right around the time of puberty and on into the adult years is a particularly critical time for the brain sculpting to take place… [in the teen years, this] part of the brain that is helping organization, planning and strategizing is not done being built yet … [It’s] not that the teens are stupid or incapable of [things]. It’s sort of unfair to expect them to have adult levels of organizational skills or decision making before their brain is finished being built. …It’s also a particularly cruel irony of nature, I think, that right at this time when the brain is most vulnerable is also the time when teens are most likely to experiment with drugs or alcohol.
So though there is much potential for good decision-making skills in adolescence, neurobiology proves what we know intuitively – you are more likely to make bad decisions under the age of 18 as planning and strategizing abilities are not fully developed: “It is not that these tasks cannot be done before young adulthood, but rather that it takes less effort, and hence is more likely to happen.“ There is huge capacity for change and development, however, so under-18 decision-making abilities will often therefore depend on the assistance and space which they have been given to reflect on and understand their situation.
This is what makes it all the more important to talk about child grooming in Shamima’s case. It was not alcohol or drugs which she ultimately came to experiment with, but with a terror organisation she likely had contact with online. There is much that is unknown about the circumstances that led her to leave for Syria. Yet UK security sources state that the internet is the common avenue for ISIS/Daesh indoctrination of children. It is inescapable that Shamima encountered adults online who groomed her, defined by the NSPCC as “when someone builds an emotional connection with a child to gain their trust for the purposes of sexual abuse, sexual exploitation or trafficking.” Child marriage involves inevitable sexual exploitation – at age 15 she could not legally have consented to travelling for marriage – and therefore Shamima was a sexually abused child. Children frequently do not understand that they have been groomed or abused. If the situation had been dealt with in 2015 by her family or professionals (and indeed it seems that authorities failed to act on information that they had in this regard), and adequate assistance provided to her, the outcome would likely have been very different for Shamima.
Indeed, international humanitarian law insists that girls in Shamima’s situation – that is, recruited by terrorist groups like ISIS/Daesh – as are to be seen as “victims of multiple violations of their rights” who must be afforded the same protections as others who have been exploited in criminal activities and trafficking. Nevertheless, there has been little concern for Shamima’s situation as a groomed minor, nor adequate recognition that it is the broader system of power in operation – an international network of exploitative adults – which should be the focus of blame here, not the teenager who was groomed by them. When seen through this lens it becomes painfully clear how shameful is it to use a picture of a sexually exploited girl for target practice; to strip her of her citizenship; to tell her this is her own fault.
There have been many cases in the courts seeking to deal with children of those returning from Syria and those considered to be radicalised and otherwise affected by the operations of ISIS/Daesh. A government spokesperson commented to the Independent newspaper that: “Authorities will use …a range of powers to protect returning children and support their welfare…” It seems that, once they happen to have turned 18 they are considered fair game for any treatment deemed politically advantageous at the time.
There is clearly a large degree of demonisation of Shamima, and it is likely that this will happen to other women returning from Syria in similar circumstances. In 2015 she was a sexually exploited child and she has recently entered adulthood. Whether she has actually committed any crimes is unclear and unproven. Whether she would pose any risks to the public at all is likewise unproven. Yet, unlike other returnees, she has been stripped of her citizenship. Until these skewed perceptions of Shamima’s situation are called out for what they are, young people like her will be denied the proper assistance and care after exploitative and traumatic experiences.
Aoife Daly is Senior Lecturer at the School of Law and Social Justice at the University of Liverpool and Deputy Director of the European Children’s Rights Unit which seeks to progress children’s rights through research. She recently published Children, Autonomy and the Courts: Beyond the Right to be Heard (Brill/Nijhoff, 2018) in which she argues that it is children’s autonomy and due process rights, not solely their ‘right to be heard’ which should be the focus where courts determine their best interests. She is at present writing about the preoccupation of the law with children’s ‘competence’.