Survivors of forced marriage go on UK tour

Victims will travel country urging children at risk to tell the authorities of their fears

Their stories are ones not normally made public in intimate detail. But in the first scheme of its kind, survivors of forced marriages will travel the country next month to describe the ordeals they went through in an attempt to try to persuade communities to abandon the practice.

Men and women who were forced to marry against their wishes will journey to 12 cities to tell teachers and police officers to be extra vigilant about children going missing during the summer holidays.

Each summer hundreds of girls and boys, largely from South Asian communities, travel with their families to India, Pakistan and Bangladesh, where they are forced into marriages.

Those working to stop the practice say the period just before the summer holiday is always their busiest time of the year. They hope that prompting survivors to tell their own stories will encourage children at risk to come forward and local authorities to take those fears seriously when they do.

"If we want to stop young boys and girls being kidnapped and forced to marry overseas we have to get out into these communities before the summer holidays," said Jasvinder Sanghera, the founder of Karma Nirvana, a charity based in Derby, which is organising the tour. "We have to persuade teachers, police officers, social services and anyone else on the front line to take a preventive approach and be alert to children going missing in their areas."

The tour will deliberately target towns with large South Asian populations, where calls from children at risk tend to be highest. Confirmed areas include Derby, Nottingham, Huddersfield, Leicester, Oldham, Hounslow in London, Middlesbrough and Newcastle. The organisers also hope to travel to Bradford and Leeds but have yet to hear back from the local authorities.

Survivors also hope to remind officials that new legislation exists to prevent someone from being taken abroad against their will. They fear that not enough people are aware that the Forced Marriage Act, which came into effect in November 2008, allows local authorities and members of the public to apply for an injunction if they think a child is at risk of being taken out of the country. Since November 2008, 117 injunctions have been used to save children from forced marriages; the youngest of these was eight years old.

Exact numbers are hard to come by, but in 2006 it was reported that 250 girls in Bradford alone were taken off the school roll and not returned to education the following autumn. According to Karma Nirvana, 33 of those girls have still not been accounted for. The Government's Forced Marriage Unit, which repatriates around 300 victims of forced marriages each year, says 42 per cent of those it saves are under 16.

Karma Nirvana's "Honour Network", the first national helpline for victims of forced marriages and so-called honour violence, regularly sees a spike in calls in the run-up to the summer holidays. In June last year, for instance, it received 769 calls, double that year's monthly average of around 350 calls.

"Just before the summer holidays the calls come flooding in," said Ms Sanghera. "Some are from girls – it's usually but not always girls – saying they fear they will be married off abroad. Others are from family members, friends or teachers, police officers and social workers. Each one of those calls is vital. But we need to persuade more people to speak out if we want to stop this abhorrent practice."

Case study: Mayah, aged 33

Mayah, a 33-year-old Sikh woman who lives in the Midlands, was forced into a marriage in India after she ran away with a Christian man she fell in love with. She will be one of the survivors speaking during the tour. She has changed her name to protect her safety

"When I was 20 years old, I fell in love with a Christian man and married him but my family reacted as though I had dishonoured them. I was flown to India and two years after being kept under very strict observation, I was forced to marry a man I had never met properly until the wedding day. I was forced into making this marriage work and to have children to restore the 'respect and honour' in my father's family. We returned to England and eventually I managed to leave the marriage, about five years ago.

"The message I hope to get across to the people I speak to this summer is that forced marriage is not a game. It happens to real people and it ruins lives. It has to be handled sensitively but at the end of the day what we're talking about is rape, forced imprisonment and kidnap. These are criminal acts, not cultural issues and we cannot brush them under the carpet. We need teachers and officials to be on the lookout for signs but we also need to tell schoolchildren of their rights and what they can do to protect themselves.

"I'm not nervous about the tour. What happened to me is something that is now part of my life and speaking about my story helps others come forward. I've just finished working on a case that involved two orphans who were about to be forced into marriages in Pakistan. Last month they were reunited in a refuge and they were so happy. Cases like that make the job worthwhile."

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