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EXCLUSIVE: Young girls forced into marriage during coronavirus lockdown

By Barnie Choudhury

Children as young as 14 are contacting the police, using a special app, over fears they will be married against their will during the coronavirus lock down. That’s according to a leading charity which specialises in helping victims of forced marriage. The leap in numbers is an unintended consequence of the government’s emergency measures, with south Asian girls and boys being unable to go to school.

Founder of Freedom Charity, Aneeta Prem, told Eastern Eye exclusively: “For the first time you’ve got predominantly young girls locked down with their families, particularly dads, who may normally be at work and don’t have much to do with their daughters. But now they’re seeing them all the time and the idea of getting them married, and a forced marriage, is becoming more predominant because they’re seeing them underfoot.”

Aneeta Prem

The charity and the government’s Forced Marriage Unit launched an app in 2012 so school children would be two steps away from getting help from the police. So far, a quarter of a million have downloaded it onto their phones, I-pads or computers.

“There’s been a substantial increase in the number of calls during the lock down, mainly via the app because they can’t physically pick up the phone, and that’s what people need to understand,” said Prem.

“These calls are the tip of the iceberg because there are ears everywhere, and we’ve got girls who’re not allowed to go out for their daily one-hour exercise. Some calls we have got when they have been allowed out, and they tell us ‘you’ve got to get me out now’.”

Another national charity, Karma Nirvana, has seen a 200 per cent rise over a six-week period from 16 March to 24 April. Its website breaks down the new cases during the lock down, and 47 new victims have contacted it because of abuse relating to forced marriage.

Ms Prem said that calls usually spike after GCSE and A level exams, and this could produce another unintended consequence of the COVID lockdown.

“The key thing is that GCSEs and A levels aren’t taking place this year, and that’s predominantly when girls are forced into marriage, and boys, after these really momentous exams. Now they can take place as soon as the lockdown is lifted. These marriages could take place over social media or Skype, but we haven’t had any reports of that happening at the moment.”

Barnie Choudhury speaks to Radio Leicester about this story.

Worryingly, it is no longer just parents who are forcing children to get married. “It’s not just the dads,” explained Prem, “It also the brothers that are really perpetrating this. I thought we were going to see the end of forced marriage when this generation of parents had lost influence, but it’s the brothers who’re trying to assert their authority now.”

Zaeda, not her real name, said her father had been mentally and physically abusing her since she was 14 because he did not approve of the way she wanted to dress. She eventually ran away after her family wanted her to marry, and she had a child. But her family tracked her down.

“I think the memory that sticks with me the most is when my dad attacked me recently, because he found out I was seeing someone. I was in my living room playing with my son and he came storming through my front door screaming and shouting,” recalled Zaeda, who is now 22.

“I told him to get out and not to shout in front of my son, but he didn’t listen and punched me in my face. I fell and hit my head on the fireplace. All I can remember is hearing my son screaming. I felt like I was going to die, I felt so weak, I kept trying to get up but every time I tried, my head was spinning, and I had no strength. I just wanted to get my son and run away, but I couldn’t. My brother was shouting at me saying, ‘shame on you, you dirty slag, you deserve it.’ I felt like I was nothing.”

Charities fear children could be forced into marriage via Skype.

During the pandemic, she contacted a charity, which is now helping her. But Zaeda has criticised the way the police handled her complaint.

“I’m so upset with the police. My dad is still calling and threatening me. I know that we’ve got this coronavirus thing happening, but I thought that the police would at least check on me or call me to update me. What makes me so angry is that the police made a referral to social services, and now a social worker has contacted me saying that my son is at risk of harm and that it’s my fault. I’m so scared that they will take my son away from me”.

Latest figures from the Crown Prosecution Service show that 72 people were prosecuted for so called ‘honour based’ abuse in 2018-19, and 41 were convicted. But even it realises that: ‘The small number of cases indicates the need for caution in interpreting this data in relation to these offences.’

When it comes to this offence, figures from the Crown Prosecution Service are for offences under section 121 Anti-Social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Act 2014 and section 121 breach of a forced marriage protection order, which have been in force for five years. Of the five men and three women who were prosecuted, three were convicted.

A Home Office spokesperson told Eastern Eye: “Forced marriage is a devastating crime and the government is committed to eliminating all forms of so-called honour-based abuse. The joint Home Office and Foreign Office Forced Marriage Unit continues to provide advice and support to victims and potential victims of forced marriage.”

The Freedom Charity is now relying on volunteers because it has not been funded for a year.

Aneeta Prem said: “We desperately need funding to update the app so we can put on the latest COVID advice. If there is anyone who can write and code or update our app, or are being furloughed, we need their help. We are on-our-knees-desperate asking for help and support during this time. We need to update our app with great advice on what people can do if they need help during this lock down. If we could speak to someone willing to volunteer their time, that would be really helpful.”

‘I hated myself, it was horrible and I had no one to turn to’: Abuse victim tells her story

Eastern Eye has spoken to a victim of domestic abuse who feared she was going to be forced to marry. We have called her Zaeda to protect her identity, and we are not revealing where she is living. She is 22 years old and has faced physical abuse during the current lock down.

What form did your abuse take?

My father physically and mentally abused me from the age of 14 years. That’s the age where I began wanting to be my own person, wanting to dress the way I wanted to dress, like the way my friends dressed at school. I didn’t want to wear Asian suits anymore, don’t get me wrong, it wasn’t as if I wanted to run around half-naked, I just wanted to wear things like trousers and tops, you know like pretty dresses.

I’d take my clothes into school and get dressed into my ‘English clothes’, but my dad caught me one day walking with my friends. He stopped the car screaming at me and calling me a slag. I had to go home with him, and he mentally and physically tortured me all night. He punched me, dragged me around by my hair and kept telling me that I dressed that way because I wanted to have sex with men. He said that I was dirty and that I was bringing shame on the family. I couldn’t understand why he was doing this to me, I was only wearing trousers and a top, you couldn’t see my legs or breasts or anything.

How did it effect you?

I started to believe that I was a bad person, you know, like worthless and an embarrassment to my family. I started to lose loads of weight. I went down from eight and a half stones to six stones. I looked really ill, everyone said it. I got really depressed and then I started secretly drinking and smoking. I couldn’t concentrate at school, I felt like I was suffocating, kind of like drowning in pain. I hated myself, it was horrible, I had no one to turn to, not even my mum because she was scared of my dad too, she was just too weak to stand up to him. I have really bad nightmares, sometimes I hate going to sleep because I know I’m going to have nightmares about all the things he’s done to me, I can’t remember the last time I had a good night’s sleep. I have anxiety and panic disorder too. I can never relax at home, every time I hear a car pull up outside, I get so scared because I think it’s my dad and that he’s coming to beat me up.  I hate living like this.

How long were you abused?

I’m 22 years old now with my own child and my dad is still abusing me, so that’s about eight years I think, wow… I can’t believe it’s been that long. He found out last week that I was seeing someone, and he came to my home with my brother and sister and attacked me in front of my child.

How often were you abused?

“My dad didn’t hit me every day, but he did mentally abuse me every day. Although I don’t live at home anymore with my parents, I’m still being abused by him, he rings me and threatens me, he gets my younger brother and sister to call and they abuse me too. I’m used to it now, I just get on with it so that I can be a really good mum to my child.

Were you the only person in your home to be abused in this way or were other family members affected e.g. children? If children were harmed, how many and how?

My dad didn’t abuse my brothers or my sister, but he did abuse me and my mum.  I don’t know why it was just us, and I always resented my sister because she was a ‘daddy’s girl’ and she used to snitch of me to my dad knowing that he would beat me. She used to call me a slag too.  My baby brother used to scream and cry when he saw my dad beating me. He was only little, bless him, and he used to grab my dad’s legs to try and stop him from kicking and hitting me. When I was on the floor, my baby brother used to throw himself on top of me to protect me from the punches and my dad used to stop hitting me then.  I really miss my baby brother.

Please can you share a memory which highlights what you went through?

I think the memory that sticks with me the most is when my dad attacked me recently, because he found out I was seeing someone. I was in my living room playing with my son and he came storming through my front door screaming and shouting. I told him to get out and not to shout in front of my son, but he didn’t listen and punched me in my face. I fell and hit my head on the fireplace.  All I can remember is hearing my son screaming, I felt like I was going to die, I felt so weak, I kept trying to get up but every time I tried, my head was spinning and I had no strength. I just wanted to get my son and run away, but I couldn’t. My other brother, not my baby brother, was shouting at me saying, “Shame on you, you dirty slag, you deserve it.” I felt like I was nothing.

How did you escape?

“When I was living at home, I started seeing a boy. I got pregnant and we ran away to get married.  I know now that I did that to escape. I think that if my dad wasn’t the way he was, I’d probably be living at home now, helping my parents or I’d be at university or something.  I don’t know, it’s just really sad because I do love my parents, but I don’t understand how any parent could do that to their own child. I feel really angry at my mum sometimes, but then I realise that it wasn’t her fault, she was just too weak and scared of him.

Who did you contact?

The last incident, I called the police. They told me to call Women’s Aid. I called them and they said that I could go into a hostel, but that they didn’t have a place for me, and that I would have to call them every morning to see if a place was available. I did that for a couple of days, but I gave up in the end. I couldn’t tell anyone else because I was too ashamed.

How useful were the police?

I’m so upset with the police. It took all of my courage to go with the police to the police station to make a statement against my dad. They took photos of my injuries. The police said that they saw it as honour-based violence. I thought that they would arrest my dad or at least warn him to stay away from me. But nothing. My dad is still calling and threatening me. The police haven’t contacted me since I made my statement. I know that we’ve got this coronavirus thing happening, but I thought that the police would at least check on me or call me to update me. What makes me so angry is that the police made a referral to social services, and now a social worker has contacted me saying that my son is at risk of harm and that it’s my fault. I’m so scared that they will take my son away from me.

If domestic violence charities and support groups were forced to close through lack of funding, what do you think would happen to people like you?

“I really don’t know what I would have done without this charity. My friend told me about them, and I rang them. They gave me a support worker and they have been amazing. They have got me a solicitor who is Asian like me and she really understands what I am going through because she has helped other women and men who have gone through what I am going through now. She is helping me to get an injunction out against my dad and will be supporting me with social services. My Support Worker speaks to me every day and I don’t know what I would do without her. She helps me get through each day and has contacted the police and housing to see what they can do to support me. I think that if I didn’t have this charity, my mental health would get even worse and I would have no one.

I really believe that if there were not organisations like this one, so many would suffer in silence, they would be forgotten, I even think that some people would take their own lives.  I have told my story because maybe it will help someone who is going what I’m going through and encourage them to contact charities or another organisation like it to get help and support.   It’s not fair to take funding away from organisations like this, they’re the ones that really care about people and help them to turn their lives around, they are the ones who hear the voices of the voiceless.