Mystery of Bradford's missing children: were they forced into marriages abroad?

They are the missing women of Bradford – the more than 200 teenage girls per year who disappear from their schools and fail to return from trips overseas. Where they go and whether they come back is not known, but is is feared that many are forced to marry abroad – and hundreds more like them across the country are vanishing every year.

No one knows the exact number of British women who are forced marry against their will, but a recent Home Office paper revealed that in 2006 in Bradford alone, 250 girls aged 13 to 16 were taken off their school rolls because they did not return from a visit abroad.

Campaigners say that, while not all these children will have been forced into marriage, there is a chance that such a fate awaited a small but tragic few. The Forced Marriage Unit, a joint Home Office and Foreign Office department that deals with such reports and repatriates many victims to the UK, deals with 5,000 callers a year. Of those, 300 are forced marriage cases: 15 per cent of them involving boys and 30 per cent of them minors, some as young as 11.

Shazia Qayum, 27, was one such victim. When she was 15, she was taken out of her Manchester school by her parents because she refused to marry a cousin in Pakistan. Despite being kept prisoner at home for more than a year, no one came looking for her. "Day after day, I sat in my room praying for someone to find me," she recalls. "I was convinced my school or the authorities would start asking questions but, to my knowledge, no one bothered."

Campaigners concede that the Government has begun taking steps to fight so-called "honour crime". New laws coming into force this summer will allow victims to obtain court injunctions against anyone trying to force them to marry. But critics say more attention must be paid to investigating what happens to Asian girls who drop out of school early.

"We have to start focusing more on the issue of girls going missing from school," says Jasvinder Sanghera, who was forced to marry at 14 and went on to found Karma Nirvana – a Derby-based group which helps domestic violence victims. "The Bradford figures are particularly alarming because, if that is how many girls are at risk in one city, imagine how many possible victims there could be across the country?"

Nazir Afzal, a Crown prosecutor specialising in honour crimes and forced marriages, believes alarm bells should ring whenever a child is withdrawn from a school early. "It's important not just to concentrate on the victims but also potential victims," he says. "Often, if a girl or boy is taken out of school early, it's a trigger that a forced marriage may be on the cards."

Some campaigners say the battle against forced marriage is often stymied by a reluctance to intervene in ethnic minority affairs for fear of accusations of racism or "Islamophobia". "I have been rabbiting on about this for years and have been labelled a racist and an Islamaphobe for doing so," says Ann Cryer, the Labour MP for the ethnically-mixed Bradford constituency of Keighley. "The problem is that it is just not in anyone's interest to pursue what is happening to these children.

"Parents, schools and the community simply do not want to look into it but that is just not satisfactory. I don't care who does it, but someone has to ask questions as to why these children are not in school."

Schools in predominantly Asian areas often refuse to put up advice posters because they are afraid of upsetting parents. Similarly, though the Forced Marriage Unit has produced guidelines for teachers, they are not obliged to take action or even to read the pamphlet.

Zedunnisa Hajee, headteacher of the Jaamiatul Imaam Muhammad Zakaria school for girls on the outskirts of Bradford, says she has yet to come across a case of forced marriage but she has procedures in place should it happen. She admits it does take place in the wider community but adds: "We liaise with police regularly and make sure the girls are all aware of their rights and that no one can force them to marry."

Bradford City Council disputed the Government's figures but said it identified 205 children in the city last year who were not in school. A spokesman added: "Of this number, 172 were tracked to an alternative destination or known to be on a roll at school. Thirty-three children out of a total school population in Bradford of 89,000 have been on the out-of-school register for more than two months."

'No one bothered to find out where I had gone' - Shazia Qayum, 27, from Derby

I remember like it was yesterday the day that I was taken out of school and told that I had to marry my cousin . I was 15 years old and came back one day to find my mother holding a photograph of her nephew in Pakistan. She said the marriage had already been arranged. If I refused ... they would ban me from continuing my education. I thought there was no way they'd get away with taking me out of school so I refused. My parents locked me up in the house. I was convinced that my school or the authorities would start asking questions but no one ever bothered to find out where I had disappeared. Day after day I sat in my room praying for someone to find me. I later found out that my parents had got our family doctor to write sick notes for me.When I was seventeen they said that we were going on holiday to Pakistan. Shortly after we got there, they told me we were going to go to a wedding. I asked who was getting married. They replied: "You". I met my husband on the day of the wedding. I remember pleading with him that I didn't want to be married to him and he simply said he didn't care. I returned to the UK with my parents who forced me to sponsorhis visa application. He came over to the UK. I phoned the police who came to collect me but said there was little they could do. I checked into a B&B and lived there for six months. Disowned by my family and all alone. I have never felt as desperately lonely.

'I was locked up until I agreed' - Imran Rehman, 33, Birmingham

I became engaged to my uncle's five-year-old daughter in Pakistan when I was 10. At the time, I thought it was just a big party for me and a little girl who had been dressed up in a wedding outfit.

When I was 15 my family showed me the pictures of that ceremony and said I was going to have to get married.

When I was 17 I was asked if I wanted to go to Pakistan for a holiday and I jumped at the chance. One day I was abducted and locked in a mosque for 15 days until I agreed to the marriage. I escaped and went back to England... [I married] the same girl when I was 24 because the family kept pressuring me. We lasted six weeks and I got disowned by my family.

...no religion justifies forced marriages... it's forbidden in the Koran.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Arts and Entertainment
Lou Reed distorted the truth about his upbringing, and since his death in 2013, biographers and memoirists have added to the myths
musicThe truth about Lou Reed's upbringing beyond the biographers' and memoirists' myths
News
people
News
Ed Miliband received a warm welcome in Chester
election 2015
Life and Style
Apple CEO Tim Cook announces the Apple Watch during an Apple special even
fashionIs the Apple Watch for you? Well, it depends if you want it for the fitness tech, or for the style
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Project Implementation Executive

£18000 - £23000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They work with major vehicle ma...

Recruitment Genius: Chiropractic Assistant

£16500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Chiropractic Assistant is needed in a ...

Recruitment Genius: Digital Account Executive - Midlands

£18000 - £26000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They work with major vehicle ma...

Recruitment Genius: Web Developer

£28000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company provides coaching ...

Day In a Page

Armenian genocide: To continue to deny the truth of this mass human cruelty is close to a criminal lie

Armenian genocide and the 'good Turks'

To continue to deny the truth of this mass human cruelty is close to a criminal lie
Lou Reed: The truth about the singer's upbringing beyond the biographers' and memoirists' myths

'Lou needed care, but what he got was ECT'

The truth about the singer's upbringing beyond
Migrant boat disaster: This human tragedy has been brewing for four years and EU states can't say they were not warned

This human tragedy has been brewing for years

EU states can't say they were not warned
Women's sportswear: From tackling a marathon to a jog in the park, the right kit can help

Women's sportswear

From tackling a marathon to a jog in the park, the right kit can help
Hillary Clinton's outfits will be as important as her policies in her presidential bid

Clinton's clothes

Like it or not, her outfits will be as important as her policies
NHS struggling to monitor the safety and efficacy of its services outsourced to private providers

Who's monitoring the outsourced NHS services?

A report finds that private firms are not being properly assessed for their quality of care
Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

The Tory MP said he did not want to stand again unless his party's manifesto ruled out a third runway. But he's doing so. Watch this space
How do Greek voters feel about Syriza's backtracking on its anti-austerity pledge?

How do Greeks feel about Syriza?

Five voters from different backgrounds tell us what they expect from Syriza's charismatic leader Alexis Tsipras
From Iraq to Libya and Syria: The wars that come back to haunt us

The wars that come back to haunt us

David Cameron should not escape blame for his role in conflicts that are still raging, argues Patrick Cockburn
Sam Baker and Lauren Laverne: Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

A new website is trying to declutter the internet to help busy women. Holly Williams meets the founders
Heston Blumenthal to cook up a spice odyssey for British astronaut manning the International Space Station

UK's Major Tum to blast off on a spice odyssey

Nothing but the best for British astronaut as chef Heston Blumenthal cooks up his rations
John Harrison's 'longitude' clock sets new record - 300 years on

‘Longitude’ clock sets new record - 300 years on

Greenwich horologists celebrate as it keeps to within a second of real time over a 100-day test
Fears in the US of being outgunned in the vital propaganda wars by Russia, China - and even Isis - have prompted a rethink on overseas broadcasters

Let the propaganda wars begin - again

'Accurate, objective, comprehensive': that was Voice of America's creed, but now its masters want it to promote US policy, reports Rupert Cornwell
Why Japan's incredible long-distance runners will never win the London Marathon

Japan's incredible long-distance runners

Every year, Japanese long-distance runners post some of the world's fastest times – yet, come next weekend, not a single elite competitor from the country will be at the London Marathon
Why does Tom Drury remain the greatest writer you've never heard of?

Tom Drury: The quiet American

His debut was considered one of the finest novels of the past 50 years, and he is every bit the equal of his contemporaries, Jonathan Franzen, Dave Eggers and David Foster Wallace