The only time Saima Ahmed breaks down while recounting her forced marriage is when she retells the moment a family friend tracked her down and plunged a knife into her stomach for running away from home.
The 20-year-old is calm and collected as she recalls being flown to Pakistan as a teenager, married against her will to a man she had never met before and raped every night until she became pregnant. But when she thinks back to the stabbing - in which her unborn son died in her womb - the tears come.
“I can still remember waking up in hospital, listening to those machines beeping and realising that my angel was gone,” she says, her voice cracking under the strain. “But it’s because of him that I have the strength to do this. If I can stop just one girl from going through what I went through it’ll be worth it.”
It is rare to find someone brave enough to speak privately about such a harrowing ordeal, let alone in public. But that’s exactly what Saima - not her real name - is doing. Over the next month she is touring the country as part of a nationwide road show highlighting a scourge that Britain has only just begun to tackle.
The idea is to educate frontline staff – teachers, care workers and police officers – to spot the warning signs for when someone might be at risk.
“You might only get one chance to save someone from a forced marriage,” says Saima whose own pleas to teachers and care workers that she was about to be taken to Pakistan fell on deaf ears. “Every fellow survivor I’ve met has stories about how they weren’t believed.”
Saima is also determined to see her parents face justice. No-one has ever been prosecuted for stabbing her, nor have her family ever had to answer for what they did. But over the summer she hopes to change that by building a powerful body of evidence that will force the police to act on her complaints.
Her desire to seek justice is prescient. In the next two weeks the Government is expected to decide whether or not to make the act of forcing someone into marriage a specific criminal offence.
Prior to the general election David Cameron promised to do just that, calling forced marriages an “utterly bizarre and frankly unacceptable” practice. But after more than a year of the coalition government there has been little movement on the issue.
Across Europe, however, there has been a growing trend to bring in specific anti-forced marriage legislation with Norway and Belgium leading the charge. Earlier this year Germany became the latest country to outlaw forced marriages, threatening anyone caught trying to marry someone off against their will with a five year jail sentence.
British campaigners received a boost in May when a cross-party group of MPs recommended that forced marriage be turned into a criminal offence to send a stronger message that it will not be tolerated.
The Home Affairs Select Committee, which took soundings from a variety of different groups working to counter forced marriage, stated that it was “not at all clear” that current legislation was protecting those at risk.
“Criminalising forced marriages would help people like me enormously,” insists Saima. “I would have been able to tell my parents unequivocally that what they were doing was not just wrong but wholly illegal. I would have felt like the law was on my side.”
Currently it is not illegal to force someone to marry though criminal offences – such as kidnap, rape, and assault – may be committed in the course of carrying out one. The problem is that prosecutions are incredibly rare, partly because many of the actual crimes take place abroad and partly because they are so difficult to prove when vulnerable victims are often unwilling to prosecute their own families.
“It’s often looked at as a protection issue not a policing one,” admits one police source. “There’s a lot of reluctance about the idea of introducing a new offence.”
But Diana Nammi, who runs the Iranian and Kurdish Women’s Rights Organisation, believes it’s time Britain caught up with countries like Germany and Norway.
“Making forced marriage a criminal offence will send a powerful statement to those communities that practice it that it will not be tolerated,” she said. “If a parent physically abuses their child, they know social services will take that child away. And yet families simply don’t face the same penalties for forcing a marriage upon their children. That can’t be right.”
After years of kowtowing to cultural sensitivities, both law enforcement and the government have made some progress in tackling the issue. The Forced Marriage Unit – which is jointly run by the Home Office and the Foreign Office – now repatriates around 500 men and women who have been forced into weddings abroad every year. The vast majority are brought back from Pakistan, followed by Bangladesh and then India.
The previous government also brought in force marriage protection orders. Introduced in November 2008, they allow a victim or a third party can go to the courts obtain an injunction stopping them from being taken out of the country if they fear they are at risk. The Home Office initially expected the courts to issue 50 injunctions in the first six months but more than 100 were granted. As of February this year a total of 254 protection orders have been issued over half of which cover children under the age of 18.
Campaigners say the protection orders have helped enormously. But they also fear that those who are determined to get around them easily do so and that only full criminalisation will help stamp the practice out.
“I think there’s a fear or being branded racist - it makes people reluctant to support criminalisation,” says Natasha Rattu, a qualified barrister who works for Karma Nirvana, the Derby-based charity that specialises in forced marriage victims and is currently hosting the national road shows. “Well we shouldn’t let anyone convince us that it is part of their culture or religion to abuse. Forced marriage is a crime, full stop and the law should say that.”
Saima’s story shows how victims of forced marriages can all too often fall through the cracks, even when there were multiple warning signs. Beaten up by her middle-class professional parents for talking to a boy when she was 14, Saima was already on the child protection register when her parents began making plans for her to marry.
She went to her social worker two years later saying her family had already told her she was to get married and were about to fly her to Pakistan. “Rather than help me she phoned my mother straight away and said ‘Can you come collect your daughter? She’s kicking up a fuss’”, Saima recalls.
She was taken out of class the following day but the school made no attempt to follow up why she was no longer attending and where she had gone. Within a month she was on a flight to Pakistan.
“My passport and ticket were taken off me as soon as I landed,” she says. “That’s when they told me I was going to get married. I was put in a room, I wasn’t allowed to see anyone or talk to anyone for a month. After the wedding I was sexually abused every night. It was horrible, I barely recognised myself when I looked in the mirror.”
Discovering she was pregnant, Saima managed to persuade her parents that she should return to the UK to have her baby. She was allowed on the condition that she helped sponsor her husband’s visa applications for Britain.
As soon as she returned, she told her mother – who works as a general practitioner – that she wanted a divorce and had no intention of sponsoring her husband. “I’ll never forget what she said,” Saima recalls. “She said ‘He’s your husband. Even if he kills you we don’t care. You are no longer our property’”.
Realising there was no way out she ran away with little more than £50 in her pocket. But she was eventually tracked down by the family friend who stabbed her. Remarkably she recovered, went into hiding a second time and, with the help of Karma Nirvana, changed her identity. She has since got a degree and – two weeks ago – received her divorce papers from her husband who has made it to Britain.
Slowly she is rebuilding her life having being robbed of her teenage years. Last Saturday she went out on her first date.
“It went really well,” she smiles, giggling for the first time. “I used to be petrified of guys, if they approached me I’d panic. But over the years you start to realise everyone’s an individual, they’re not all out to get you.”
But she remains determined to see her family answer in a court of law for what they have done and hopes many others will one day be able to do just that if the government agrees to criminalise forced marriages.
“I initially gave up on the idea of getting justice,” she says. “But since I’ve been speaking out it’s given me the courage to say to myself I want justice because – you know what – I didn’t do anything wrong.”