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prosecutor specialising in honour crimes and forced marriages, believes alarm bells should ring whenever a child is withdrawn from a school early.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. 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
Joel Edgerton, John Turturro and Christian Bale in Exodus: Gods and Kings
Arts and Entertainment
Brendan O'Carroll as Agnes Brown in the 2014 Mrs Brown's Boys Christmas special
tvCould Mrs Brown's Boys have taken lead for second year?
Members and supporters of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender (LGBT) community walk with a rainbow flag during a rally in July
footballLive! Chelsea vs West Ham kicked off 10 Boxing Day matches, with Arsenal vs QPR closing the action
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
Arts and Entertainment
Jack O'Connell stars as Louis Zamperini in Angelina Jolie's Unbroken
film review... even if Jack O'Connell is excellent
Arts and Entertainment
Madonna is not in Twitter's good books after describing her album leak as 'artistic rape and terrorism'
music14 more 'Rebel Heart' tracks leaked including Pharrell Williams collaboration
Arts and Entertainment
Wolf (Nathan McMullen), Ian (Dan Starky), The Doctor (Peter Capaldi), Clara (Jenna Coleman), Santa Claus (Nick Frost) in the Doctor Who Christmas Special (BBC/Photographer: David Venni)
tvOur review of the Doctor Who Christmas Special
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

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

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Ashdown Group: Senior Marketing Executive- City of London, Old Street

£40000 - £43000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: Senior Marketing Executiv...

Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager

£40000 - £43000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: An international organisa...

Ashdown Group: Internal Recruiter -Rugby, Warwickshire

£25000 - £30000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Internal Recruiter -Rugby, Warwicksh...

Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager/Marketing Controller (Financial Services)

£70000 - £75000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager/Marketi...

Day In a Page

A Christmas without hope: Fears grow in Gaza that the conflict with Israel will soon reignite

Christmas without hope

Gaza fears grow that conflict with Israel will soon reignite
After 150 years, you can finally visit the grisliest museum in the country

The 'Black Museum'

After 150 years, you can finally visit Britain's grisliest museum
No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

Doctor Who Christmas Special TV review
Chilly Christmas: Swimmers take festive dip for charity

Chilly Christmas

Swimmers dive into freezing British waters for charity
Veterans' hostel 'overwhelmed by kindness' for festive dinner

Homeless Veterans appeal

In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
Isis in Iraq: Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment by militants

'Jilan killed herself in the bathroom. She cut her wrists and hanged herself'

Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment
Ed Balls interview: 'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'

Ed Balls interview

'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'
He's behind you, dude!

US stars in UK panto

From David Hasselhoff to Jerry Hall
Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz: What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?

Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz

What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?
Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

Planet’s surface is inhospitable to humans but 30 miles above it is almost perfect
Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history - clocks, rifles, frogmen’s uniforms and colonial helmets

Clocks, rifles, swords, frogmen’s uniforms

Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history
Return to Gaza: Four months on, the wounds left by Israel's bombardment have not yet healed

Four months after the bombardment, Gaza’s wounds are yet to heal

Kim Sengupta is reunited with a man whose plight mirrors the suffering of the Palestinian people
Gastric surgery: Is it really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Is gastric surgery really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Critics argue that it’s crazy to operate on healthy people just to stop them eating
Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction Part 2 - now LIVE

Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction

Bid on original art, or trips of a lifetime to Africa or the 'Corrie' set, and help Homeless Veterans
Pantomime rings the changes to welcome autistic theatre-goers

Autism-friendly theatre

Pantomime leads the pack in quest to welcome all