by LAUREN CODLING
A LEADING campaigner against forced marriage and an advisor to the Foreign Office’s Forced Marriage Unit (FMU) has said the latest “shocking” figures on the issue are the “tip of the iceberg”.
Aneeta Prem, the founder of Freedom Charity, also revealed that 20 per cent of victims referred to the organisation are men and young boys.
Her comments were in response to statistics published in The Guardian on Monday (28), which revealed more than 3,500 forced marriage reports have made been to police in the past three years.
The report also added that charity Karma Nirvana had received almost 9,000 calls in 2017, including more than 200 from children under 15, related to forced marriage.
Prem told Eastern Eye that there are still far more cases yet to be exposed. “It’s a huge problem in the UK – it is increasing and not getting better. We know there are a lot more people going through this, but are too afraid to report it,” she said.
According to her, an estimated 20 per cent of victims are men and boys. Most of them are those who identify as gay or transsexual and are pressured into marriage by their parents.
“A lot of boys go through with it as it is easier than not,” Prem said.
Eastern Eye has previously reported that some disabled men face coercion to marry
partners from the subcontinent.
Prem noted that her charity had seen an increase in numbers relating to forced marriage cases, although she could not confirm exact figures. She linked this to more awareness being raised in schools and among young people.
The most common cases she has witnessed are young people who are around 16–18 years old, either in their GCSE years at schools or while studying for their A Levels at college.
“The most common thing we see when girls are at that particular age is they go away on a basic summer holiday for a wedding, not realising it is their wedding, and they aren’t allowed to come back to the UK unless they are pregnant,” Prem said.
On Tuesday (29), a couple were found guilty of luring their 19-year-old daughter to Bangladesh to force her to marry her cousin. They were convicted of forced marriage and due to be sentenced on June 18.
Last week, a mother who duped her daughter into travelling to Pakistan to enter a forced marriage was sentenced to four-and-a-half years in prison (see page 14). It was the first successful prosecution of its kind in Britain.
“I think it will give [victims] hope to know they can do something about it,” Prem said in relation to the convictions. “It will be a deterrent sentence – children can say, these people have gone to prison, so it would give them something to hold onto.
“It means people can go to prison and the country is taking it very seriously.”
Sunny Angel, 39, was forced into marriage in Liverpool when she was 20. The man she married had learning disabilities.
“His family forced him too, he didn’t know what was going on,” she revealed to Eastern Eye. “It happened to me 20 years ago and to still see so many that are still suffering now… it needs to stop.”
Angel, who has written a book called Wings about her experiences, recalled her mother-in-law would stand outside her bedroom door and order her son to have sex with her. She was raped on multiple occasions.
The mother-of-one is now a campaigner against domestic abuse and forced marriage.
Recalling there was little support for her, she is thankful there is now more awareness of the issue. However, although she believes Asian communities know more about the issue, Angel said more still needs to change.
“A lot of it is still taboo,” she said. “Through the generations, some people have changed because it has happened to them; their own experience has changed them. But with a lot of people, they still have controlling mindsets and continue that cycle of abuse. That is
what we are trying to change.”
Katrina Patel*, 47, has been working at a women’s refuge in southern England for two and-
a-half years. She said she wasn’t surprised by the latest statistics, sharing Prem’s sentiment that the numbers are probably much higher than recorded.
In her experience working with victims, she told Eastern Eye that many women do not see themselves as having escaped from forced marriage. They instead see it as a “cultural arranged marriage”.
“One of my clients didn’t want to be a disobedient daughter, so couldn’t say no to her parents. She didn’t have a choice and I would view that as a forced marriage. But she didn’t view it as that.”
Patel confirmed the refuge is currently full, constantly inundated with phone calls, and the number of forced marriage victims who stay at the refuge has increased. However, she said the difference now to ten years ago is that women are aware they do not have to tolerate the behaviour.
“The Asian community is more aware of it happening, but it is changing the mindset that is the issue,” she said. “If their mindset is not accepting it is wrong, they carry on doing it.”
A common occurrence that Patel has noticed with victims arriving at the refuge are women coming from south Asian countries who are being forced to marry men from the UK.
“It can be parents in this country whose sons aren’t with Asian girls, so they take them to their native country and make them marry an Asian girl who are brought back to this country,” she explained. “The girls are then constantly being threatened – ‘if you leave, we will send you back to India and you will shame your family.’ They have extra control
on the girl. I’ve had a client that didn’t even register with a GP because she was told she couldn’t.”
In 2017, the FMU dealt with forced marriage cases involving 65 “focus” countries. This could be the country where the forced marriage is due to take place or the country that the spouse is currently residing in, or both.
The four countries with the highest number of cases were Pakistan (439 cases), Bangladesh (129), Somalia (91) and India (82).
Yasmin Khan, the CEO and founder of Halo Project, a support network for forced marriage and honour-based violence victims, told Eastern Eye there is still a lack of awareness and understanding of what agencies should do to protect vulnerable adults and children.
“The important issue must be to protect and support those at risk, ensuring the first point of disclosure and reporting is dealt with correctly,” she said. “It is of paramount importance we help and support women, not just for forced marriage but for all the added abuse which comes with this violation of human rights.”
When contacted by Eastern Eye, a spokesperson from the Home Office said since the
introduction of the FMU in 2008, over 1,500 Forced Marriage Protection Orders prevented
people from being forced into a marriage and to assist in repatriating victims.
“This week’s Forced Marriage conviction shows that these appalling crimes do not have to be a hidden crime, and, with the courage of victims, perpetrators will be prosecuted,” they added.
*Name has been changed to protect the person’s identity