Forced marriage victims' calls going unanswered

Funding cuts to helpline could lead to service closing down within six months
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The Independent Online

Calls for help from forced marriage victims are being ignored because the Government has cut funding to a new emergency hotline dedicated to helping women escape so-called "honour violence".

The Honour Network, the only national helpline available to forced marriage victims, has had to stop taking calls in the evening and at weekends since the beginning of January because funding from the Home Office has dried up.

The staff, who are all survivors of honour violence, have since missed 70 calls – the equivalent of three cries for help from potential forced marriage victims going unanswered every day.

Jasvinder Sanghera, the founder of Derby-based charity Karma Nirvana, which mans the helpline, said she will have to shut the network entirely in six months unless more cash can be found.

"It absolutely terrifies me when I get in each morning to see the calls that we've missed," she said. "It takes an enormous amount of courage – often a great deal of risk – for victims to call us. Many might only get one chance to make that call and every time we fail to pick up we are ignoring someone in desperate need of support."

Last year the Honour Network received up to 300 calls per month from men and women, a quarter of which would come in at the evening or at weekends, often from people who had taken great risks to their safety to call.

The helpline was set up with support from the Government's Forced Marriage Unit, which gave Karma Nirvana a £43,000 start-up grant in April 2008 and further emergency funding last spring. But the charity said it has struggled to keep Whitehall interested.

The network has been entirely reliant on public funding since September last year when the last bit of Government funding ran out and was not renewed. Karma Nirvana estimates that the charity needs just £80,000 to keep the line open all year round, about half of which they can provide through fundraising.

The Government's approach to tackling forced marriages has come under increasing criticism in recent months. In November, The Independent revealed how British women who had been forced into marriages abroad were being asked to pay for their own repatriation using low-interest loans that they could only access if they surrendered their passports.

In October, Mrs Sanghera wrote to eight MPs, including Justice Secretary Jack Straw, Keith Vaz (who chairs the Home Affairs Select Committee which investigated forced marriages) and Alan Campbell, who has been tasked with leading the Home Office's fightback against such practices. Only Mrs Sanghera's constituent MP Bob Laxton replied, and he is standing down at the next election.

A spokesperson for the Home Office said that, until last month, they had not received any requests for funding from Karma Nirvana in the current financial year. But Mrs Sanghera says her letters show that she had been requesting help since October. Alan Campbell has, however, agreed to fund an independent evaluation of the helpline to assess its needs.

“The Government takes Forced Marriage and Honour Based Violence extremely seriously and we remain committed to working with partners across the voluntary sector to support victims," a Home Office spokesperson said. "This year the Government's Forced Marriage Unit has increased funding available for projects in the UK to more than £80,000."

“Funding to the Honour Network has not been cut. Until last month we received no request for funding from Karma Nirvana in this financial year. The Government has a duty to ensure that the projects we fund provide value for money for the taxpayer are undertaken in an accountable and transparent manner. We have written to the organisation to offer to support them by funding an independent evaluation of the helpline."