Many victims of forced marriages are unaware that it is a crime, charity Karma Nirvana has said.

Although legislation has seen an increase in the number of people reporting forced marriages, there was a “worrying split” with some victims and families in the dark, the charity said, according to BBC.

Forced marriage became a criminal offence in 2014, but more than a dozen women at an event in Bradford looking at forced marriage said they weren’t aware it was illegal.

The maximum penalty for forced marriage is seven years. In 2017, the government’s Forced Marriage Unit received reports of nearly 2,000 possible cases and a good number involved girls from South Asian backgrounds.

Natasha Rattu, executive director of the West Yorkshire-based charity, said there were pockets in Bradford where forced marriage was “a huge issue”.

“It is a really sad state of affairs that five years on from the law being brought in that there is still a significant lack of awareness,” she told the outlet. “There are potential victims there who are in danger and don’t know that they can go to the police or other agencies and get the help they need.”

Asha Iqbal said she was forced to flee her family when the possibility of going to Pakistan to look at men kept being mentioned.

She said: “It kept getting mentioned that we should be going to Pakistan and having a look at a few men there. That’s when I knew things were going to progress in the wrong way for me.

“Within 24 hours of me leaving I was stuck in a hotel room, I was suicidal.

“The thing with forced marriage is you have multiple perpetrators and those perpetrators are usually linked to your very close friends so it was too risky getting in touch with certain people for support.

“I don’t think a lot of awareness work is being done by big organisations and services because they are so afraid of offending communities.

“It’s not about offending communities, it’s about putting the victim first so they recognise the signs and can make the decision whether they walk away or stand up to the abuse.”

According to Karma Nirvana, the highest number of calls from potential forced marriage victims came from West Yorkshire, especially Leeds and Bradford. In 2018 there were 1,390 contacts to its helpline, compared with 817 calls from London, the charity said.