When Sadia’s father found out she was dating, he waited for her boyfriend outside his college and beat him up. “My dad said that if he’d been Muslim he wouldn’t have minded but I doubt that. My dad didn’t want the possibility of me getting married to someone of my own choice.”
Sadia [not her real name] is 16. Last spring, just before her 16th birthday, she left home to escape her violent father who’d started introducing her to men and planned to force her to marry one of them as soon as she was 17. “But I want to do things with my life,” she says.
In an arranged marriage there is consent from both parties. But in forced marriages, pressure or abuse is used and victims are often subject to violence and rape.
Earlier this month, a documentary for ITV’s Exposure programme showed clerics at 18 UK mosques agreeing to marry off a 14-year-old girl in an Islamic ceremony. In this country, the majority of forced marriages happen within South Asian families, although they also occur in the Turkish, Kurdish, Romany and Irish traveller communities. Last year, the Foreign Office’s Forced Marriage Unit intervened in 1,485 cases. Of those in the UK, 21 per cent were in London and 22 per cent involved victims under 17.
Aneeta Prem, the founder of Freedom Charity, which raises awareness of forced marriage, says: “These figures are the tip of the iceberg. A lot of young people won’t report and we believe it’s a much bigger issue. And the perpetrators are no longer just mum and dad but brothers and cousins too.”
Research by the Department for Children, Schools and Families suggests the real number of cases in England may be 8,000 a year. The long summer and Easter holidays are prime periods for forced marriages to take place. “When children are finishing their GCSEs, that’s when you can lose them from the school roll,” explains Prem. “One of the young girls we’ve been helping was taken out after finishing her AS-levels. Nobody noticed or checked, they thought she’d just dropped out.”
Sadia was helped by Asha, a South Asian women’s organisation in Lambeth that works to end violence against women and girls. She has to keep her whereabouts secret. Skinny and pretty, wearing denim shorts and black tights, she looks just like any other teenaged London girl. She grew up in east London with her parents, both of South Asian descent, and two younger siblings. Her mother suffered with depression, her father was physically abusive.
“My parents were constantly arguing. If I backed my mum, my dad would hit me. If I backed my dad, my mum would stop talking to me.” Protecting her siblings from beatings meant Sadia often got so badly hurt herself that her parents kept her out of school to avoid intervention by social services.
Sadia’s older siblings quit the family home when she was young. One of her sisters was removed from school in her early teens and sent to India to marry. “She became suicidal and they finally brought her back. She came back with no education, no GCSEs, nothing.”
It was a warning sign. Throughout her schooling, Sadia’s father undermined her confidence, telling her she was stupid. “If you’re less well educated, you feel inferior to others and insecure. He was trying to make me feel that way,” she says. At 15, Sadia began taking the first modules of her GCSEs. “That’s when my dad started getting aggravated,” she says. “He would make excuses to keep me home.”
Her teachers began asking questions, “but he’d make up silly excuses. I don’t know how he got away with it.” Sadia kept quiet, and decided to wait until she was 16 before leaving. “I was scared of having to go into care, I’d heard a lot of horrible stories.”
But the situation at home worsened. “Last year, we did our mock exams. I got quite good predicted grades. I thought my dad would be proud, but he got so angry. He now wanted me wearing the headscarf and the long thing,” she says, significantly unable to recall the terms “hijab” and “abaya”. “We weren’t religious in any other way. It was a big change for me because I’m not used to them. He became more possessive, and I wasn’t allowed a phone any more.”
It was when her father confiscated her mobile that he discovered her boyfriend and beat him up. A string of meetings with potential husbands ensued. Some were sons of friends who “didn’t want to be there either”, others “were almost my dad’s age,” says Sadia. Many could not speak English and she would sit in silence. But there were consequences for not co-operating. “I got beaten up really badly. My shoulder was dislocated and my finger broken ... They wanted to take me to India.”
Sadia’s GCSE exams were imminent. “My father said, ‘We’re going away for three months’.” This was no coincidence — the school had sent a copy of her exam timetable home. When Sadia objected, her father locked her in the house for three days and made her siblings and mother ignore her. “If he saw them talking to me they’d get beaten. I had to stay in my room. I wasn’t allowed to eat or drink.”
The moment the doors were open, Sadia escaped. For a month she stayed with a friend, while another drove her to school for her exams, to avoid interception by her father. “Sometimes I saw him waiting outside school.” In June, her older sister put her in touch with Asha.
Now, Sadia is free on one hand, but on another feels isolated. “I miss my family,” she says. Only her older sister knows her whereabouts. “I can’t call my mum as she’d tell my dad.” And, although she got some A and C grades at GCSE, Sadia says she feels hopeless. “Education plays such a big part in your life. I could still go to college, but there are money issues.” She is currently supported by the state.
One woman helped by Prem’s Freedom Charity was forced into marriage at 17. She says, “The marriage was horrifying — sexual, mental and physical abuse. I still have scars to remind me what my ex-husband did to me.”
This is not uncommon. “The key reason for abuse is that the women don’t submit to the situation — they fight it, so they get beaten to comply,” says Prem. “The serial rape cannot be mitigated. If they’ve been taken abroad, often they’re told the only way they can come back is if they get pregnant.”
“The root causes can be preserving the culture, or keeping money in the family if it’s marriage to a cousin, or keeping family obligations,” says Ayndrilla Singharay of Asha. “Sometimes it’s about bringing a family member over, adds Prem.” But Singharay is keen to point out: “Underlying all of it is a patriarchal mindset of controlling women. It’s linked with all other forms of domestic violence against women and children. With forced marriage, you don’t mediate with the family. Once the family knows the young person has accessed a service, then they are at greatest risk of being taken away or, in the worst scenario, killed.”
In 2011, a Home Office consultation concluded that forced marriage should become a criminal offence. New laws were due to come into force this year but have not yet. Currently, victims can apply for Forced Marriage Protection Orders, which prevent them being taken out of the country or married against their will.
Prem is in favour of the new legislation, which she believes will bring police training on procedures (such as not mediating with the family) and encourage better monitoring of young people who disappear from education. Singharay is less keen: “Women want to start new lives, but generally don’t want to take legal action against the perpetrators. Some women want to keep the channels open for possible reconciliation, some don’t want to face their families in court, some simply have no trust in the justice system ... We believe criminalising forced marriage may drive the issue underground.”
Raising awareness could be the most helpful approach, and this is where schools come in. Prem spends her time going into schools to address assemblies and tell young people about the warning signs, such as “a brother or sister who’s had a very early marriage, parents who don’t want their children to go out after school or have no aspirations for them to carry on studying. Parents, brothers and cousins can be very oppressive too,” she says. Freedom Charity has an app through which victims or friends of victims can make contact to ask for help. Prem approaches young people by asking them to look out for their friends who they believe may be at risk.
“A lot of students don’t know they’re going to be a victim, so they might not take the issue seriously. The people who do notice are their friends,” she says. “We’ve visited predominantly London schools and apart from just one, every school had at least one forced marriage case come to light.”
Knowing that she is not alone in her situation “does help,” says Sadia. “But it also feels a bit sickening. It’s disgusting what goes on in this country.”