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.
The first time Shazia Qayum met her husband was on their wedding day.Skip to next paragraph
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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she had already refused to marry her first cousin two years earlier – an act of defiance that resulted in her being withdrawn from school by her parents.
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.