Foreign Office to help women in forced marriages

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Women forced into marriages against their will are to be offered new protection by British posts overseas, ministers will announce today.

Women forced into marriages against their will are to be offered new protection by British posts overseas, ministers will announce today.

Embassy staff will offer confidential interviews to women applying for visas to bring their new husbands to Britain, giving them an opportunity to speak out if they have not consented to the match. Safe houses will be provided for women who fear violence if they return home. If they choose to stay with their families, Foreign Office staff willmonitor their safety. Officials will be given training to deal with the problem.

The plan - to be announced by Baroness Scotland of Asthal, a Foreign Office Minister, and Michael O'Brien, a Home Office Minister - forms part of the Government's response to a report on forced marriages published in June.

The Working Group on Forced Marriages found around 100 cases during its year-long investigation and called for new resources and training to deal with the problem. Although most of the victims were women of Asian descent, it said forced marriages were not condoned by the Hindu, Muslim or Sikh religions.

The Government is also considering action in this country in response to the report and is likely to include new resources for voluntary and community organisations providing advice and support for Asian women.

The working group has also called for a change in housing law, which sometimes bars victims of forced marriages or domestic violence from emergency accommodation because they are not treated as a "priority group".

The moves will also tackle the problem of how to protect women who ask immigration staff to withhold UK visas from their husbands because they have married against their will.

Immigration law demands that the husband must be told why he has been refused entry to Britain, but the Government wants to protect wives who come forward.

Women who want a safe place to stay will be offered one. If they prefer to return to their families, arrangements can be made to contact them at a particular time to ensure they have not been harmed or harassed.

The working group was chaired by two Labour peers, Baroness Uddin and Lord Ahmed. Baroness Uddin said she expected the Government to react positively to all its findings.

"One of the problems has been that some women have received good protection whereas others haven't," she said. "We want to make sure there is consistent and proper guidance available to everyone."

The case of Rukhsana Naz has become a notorious example of the problem. She was 12 when she met the love of her life, Imran Najib. The pair would meet at school in Derby, hold hands and chat on the phone for hours.

When her parents sent her away to Pakistan three years later, supposedly to visit her sick grandfather, her husband-to-be, Sajid, was waiting.

Despite her objections, she was forced to marry him and returned home while Sajid waited for a visa to come to Britain. While in England she sought comfort from Imran and dreaded her husband's arrival in Britain but was forced to return twice to Pakistan where she conceived two children. When she became pregnant for the third time, the father was not Sajid, but Imran.

Despite their fears, no one could have predicted what would happen next. After a tense family dinner at which the pregnant Rukhsana refused to have an abortion, her 45-year-old mother Shakeela held her down on the floor while her brother, Shazad, strangled her with a piece of flex.

When she was dead they bundled her body into a box and dumped it in Denby Dale, West Yorkshire. Police later said they would have had no chance of identifying her had it not been for a number scribbled on the back of her hand: her lover's pager.

In May last year, Shakeela and Shazad Naz were given life sentences for the murder after Rukhsana's younger sister Safina gave evidence against them. Her other brother, 18- year-old Iftikhar, was acquitted of involvement in the crime.

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