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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.

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"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."

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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."