Forced marriage: 'I just thought it was a normal family holiday'

One girl who fell victim to the practice tells her story

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The Independent Online

More than a year after a new law criminalising the practice, there has been just one prosecution for forced marriage, despite more than 1,200 potential cases being discovered every year. As part of The Independent's series of articles on the subject here is the story of one schoolgirl who fell victim to the tradition.

Jasmine (not her real name) was 13 when she discovered that school holidays weren’t something to look forward to any more. An east London schoolgirl, she had lived in Britain since she was three but spent that summer visiting the South Asian country her parents came from.

"I just thought it was a normal family holiday, but on the last day, 10 minutes before we left to go back to the airport, my family came round with sweets and money. They kept asking me if I liked my cousin, who was five years older and lived out there. I thought: ‘He’s my cousin; I don’t think of him that way.’ ”

She soon realised the sweets were to celebrate their engagement – which would lead to a wedding when she was 18. When she got home, she was forced to have regular phone conversations with her prospective husband and his parents. “I was just 13 and they were asking me stuff that I hadn’t even spoken to my mum about. It was awkward.”

The pressure from her family grew throughout secondary school. “My mum used to hit me, slap me and pull my hair,” she recalls. She was taunted for becoming too Western and forbidden from going on school trips or spending time with friends in case boys were there.

Then in 2012, when she was 14, things got worse. “My mum dragged me by the hair and almost strangled me. She made me take off the trousers of my salwar kameez [a traditional garment] and made me stand outside the house like that until my father came home. Then when he came home she said: ‘She’s putting us to shame; if this was any other girl they’d kill themselves for bringing the family such shame.’ ”

When she was studying for her GCSEs last year, the pressure became too much. She had been to her parents’ home country again, where there had been more talk of her marriage to her cousin.

After that visit, her unwanted future husband would call constantly to speak to her. “He was talking about kids and saying he didn’t want to live with my family. I couldn’t focus on my GCSEs; I kept thinking: ‘What’s the point if they want me to get married?’ I’d never liked him in that way but I was too afraid to talk to my parents about it. I didn’t get the grades I needed for medicine in my GCSEs because I couldn’t focus.”

Then she got a boyfriend. Their relationship was secret but people in the community gossiped about her anyway and would tell her parents they had seen her with boys.

In February this year, Jasmine overheard her mother talking to her family in Asia on the phone and saying that England was not a good place for girls because they were becoming corrupt.

Then things got scarier. “The week before February half-term, there were arguments every single day. My mum and dad said: ‘Finish college this Friday; you’re not going back.’ I said: ‘Why, what’s going on?’ They said: ‘Next week we’re taking you back home and you’re going to get married.’ ”

She was just 16 and had hoped she still had two years to persuade them against the marriage to her cousin, but suddenly it was happening. “I said, ‘It’s my life,’ and my mum slapped me and said, ‘It’s not your life.’ ”

At school she told a teacher what was happening and they immediately contacted the police and Hackney social services. Police officers assessed her as an acute risk but the social worker she was referred to went straight to her parents to try to mediate a return home – despite this being against all forced-marriage guidelines.

Jasmine recalls: “After speaking to my parents, the social worker said: ‘Your parents are really upset and they didn’t know you didn’t want the marriage and say they won’t force you.’ She just told me to go home and ‘act normal’.”

With social services refusing to help her find a place to stay, she ended up staying with friends – but she didn’t feel safe. Her family was calling dozens of times a day, even sending messages falsely claiming her mother had fainted and was in hospital.

Later, after she had fled home, social services got her to attend a meeting, without warning her that her parents would be there.

Local police say they were shocked when they realised social services were speaking to Jasmine’s parents and trying to send her home. They lobbied on her behalf to make sure she had somewhere safe to go and the charity Southall Black Sisters helped find her a refuge in another town.

At the end of February, a court gave her a Forced Marriage Protection Order, which forbids her parents from contacting her or taking her out of the country. She is now safe and studying again.

In March, Southall Black Sisters made a formal complaint to the director of children’s services at Hackney, accusing it of a serious breach of duty in going against government and local guidelines for dealing with forced marriage.

Hackney social services says it followed guidelines for arranged marriage rather than forced marriage, claiming that Jasmine did not at first tell it she didn’t want to marry, despite talking about being afraid and having a boyfriend.

Hackney council said: “We acted in accordance with statutory guidance and if at any point we thought she was at risk of forced marriage, of course we would have taken immediate action.”