British warning: Summer is forced marriage season

At least 5,000 women and girls were sent abroad to marry last year, according to a government report. Britain is toughening its stand against the practice with 'rescue’ teams, hotlines, and a new campaign to protect women.

By , Correspondent

The first time Shazia Qayum met her husband was on their wedding day.

Duped by her parents into visiting the poor, pious, hilly district of Mirpur in Pakistani-administered Kashmir, she arrived to a village abuzz with preparations for her wedding – a ceremony she knew nothing about.

Seventeen years old, she had already refused to marry her first cousin two years earlier – an act of defiance that resulted in her being withdrawn from school by her parents.

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"I couldn't believe they had brought me from Birmingham to Pakistan on such a huge lie," she says. "It crushed me."

That was more than decade ago, but government figures released today suggest the true scale of Britain's forced-marriage problem is only now beginning to emerge. It is estimated that between 5,000 and 8,000 cases of forced marriage occurred in Britain last year, according to the Department for Children, Schools, and Families.

Most are teenage girls from Britain's large Pakistani, Bangladeshi, and Indian communities. They're married off, according to the report, to bond the young women to their community, keep clan promises, or as a way to provide a British visa for a foreign family member or friend.

The figures have delivered a fresh jolt to Britain's multicultural paradigm, which until recently handled reports of forced marriage and associated "honor crimes" as cultural issues, beyond the remit of the justice system (read more Monitor coverage here).

But confronted by high-profile cases of murder, abduction, and forced marriage, the British government is talking tougher, hoping to establish the primacy of British law and identity over sectarian interests – an argument reignited by French President Nicolas Sarkozy last month when he promoted a ban on Muslim women wearing the burka.

"Nobody should be forced into marriage against their will or without their free and open consent," says Chris Bryant, a minister for the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. "There is no culture in which this is acceptable in the modern world, and we are determined to do everything we can to put a stop to it."

Guidelines for police, teachers, doctors

The report is accompanied by new guidelines issued to police, teachers, and family doctors on recognizing the warning signs of a forced marriage.

The guidelines were released ahead of the school summer holidays – a period when hundreds of children are known to be taken abroad and married off, some never to return to Britain.

Advocates say it is effectively child abuse, and the real figures are much higher, but unreported.

Ms. Qayum says the issue turns on misplaced notions of honor among some South Asian communities.

"Refusing to marry the person they have chosen is perhaps the worst you can do in the eyes of the community," she says. "I was left with the choice of living out a lie for my parents' sake or leaving, starting with nothing, and losing my family. I choose to leave."

She hasn't seen her family since.

Part of a Western European push back?

Several hotlines across the country field calls from people fearing they will be married against their will. A number staffed by Britain's Forced Marriage Unit (FMU) has received 770 calls so far this year. The FMU is a team run jointly by the Foreign and Home offices.

"We took a call from a women in the toilet at Heathrow Airport," says Sarah Russell, head of the unit. "We managed to get the police to her before she was flown out of the country, but there are many others out of our reach."

The FMU carries out "rescues" abroad with the help of local police forces, but tracking people across the rural backwaters of Pakistan and Bangladesh is a tough task, made harder by the threat to victims' safety if a family finds out they have been reported.

New laws on the books

But Britain's new efffort has its critics, who say that the tougher message will not be heard in the Urdu-, Punjabi-, and Sylheti-speaking corners of London, Birmingham, and Manchester until there is a specific criminal offense for forcing someone to marry.

Currently, judges can make an order under the Forced Marriage Act, which became law in November, to stop potential victims being taken abroad and married against their will. Orders can also release a victim from the control of their family. But no one has stood trial for forcing a marriage.

Thirty-six such orders have been issued so far, including the landmark case that freed Humayra Abedin, a physician in training, who was duped into traveling to the Bangladeshi capital, Dhaka, where she was held captive in advance of a forced marriage.

The Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) is also training its sights on perpetrators of other so-called honor crimes – which, in the extreme, include murder – and the communities that collude in them through silence.

Nazir Afzal, the lead lawyer for London's CPS, says the issue boils down to the power relations within male-dominated societies.

"It is not just the elders who may believe women are inferior," he says.

"I met a 21-year-old Muslim boy, who told me 'man is a piece of gold, women are silver. If you drop gold in mud it can be cleaned; drop silver and it is worthless.'

"That's what we're up against, but we are heading in the right direction."

Authorities more aware

Great strides have been made since Shazia Qayam returned to Britain after her Pakistan ordeal. A decade ago, she faced a wall of ignorance from the authorities.

"The response was, basically, that I was being a highly strung little girl and should go back to my parents," she says.

At home, she says, she was ordered to banish her Western ways and adopt the mores of a "good Muslim wife" in preparation for the arrival of her new husband.

Her cellphone was confiscated, she was confined to the house, and she stopped going to school.

Qayum escaped. With a pittance saved from farm work, she went through a merry-go-round of women's refuges until landing back in Britain at Karma Nirvana, a charity in the Midlands, where she now works as a support worker for other women trying to escape forced marriage.

Some 4,900 women have sought help from Karma Nirvana since April last year, a figure that Qayam, who is now 29, says is the tip of the iceberg.

Over time, she has softened toward her parents, even expressing an understanding of the cultural pressures they were under to marry her off so young.

"One day I hope we can rebuild some kind of relationship. But it is just a hope for now."

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