‘I took two overdoses in an attempt to escape my forced marriage’

Every year in the UK between 12 and 15 women are murdered for refusing to marry. Now the government has promised to tackle 'honour violence'

The number of women under threat of so-called ‘honour violence’ is rising, and now the government has pledged to push it to the top of their agenda with a new initiative, ‘I always knew that my family would try to force me into marriage. I was so desperate to escape it that I had taken two overdoses by the age of 13.’ This is the story of Aadela*, who was born in the UK to an Afghan family living in Bradford. ‘I started my period aged nine and everything changed: one minute I was playing football with my brothers, the next I was learning how to cook and clean for my future husband. In the end I ran away to London, aged just 13 and a half. I had to erase my family in order to live.’

Aadela’s story is not uncommon. Despite being outlawed by the UK government in 2014, last year over 1,000 cases of forced marriage were reported to UK authorities. Yet this is likely only the tip of the iceberg as many cases of forced marriage and ‘honour violence’ go unreported, and of those that are – only one has ever led to a conviction. The price for refusing a forced marriage is high. Each year, twelve to fifteen women in the UK will pay with their life.

‘Every woman, in every culture, all who live here, need to be protected [from honour violence]’ – Amber Rudd, Home Secretary

Priya* tried to escape a forced marriage aged 18 by also running away to London from the North of England, but the independent life she had dreamed of looked very different in reality. She ended up in homeless accommodation and missed her family desperately. Eventually Priya made the difficult decision to return home, but didn’t receive the welcome that she had hoped for: ‘My uncle came to my house, put his hands around my neck and squeezed. He said “I’ll happily do twenty years for doing you in if you ever pull a stunt like that again.”’ Under immense pressure and in fear for her life, Priya agreed to visit Pakistan with her family for what she believed was a holiday. When they arrived her relatives immediately started pressuring her into marrying a stranger. Isolated and far from home, she felt she had no choice but to agree: ‘I was raped on my wedding night. Over the next four and a half years my husband regularly subjected me to physical, verbal and sexual abuse.’

Honour violence

Home Secretary Amber Rudd (R) and founder of Karma Nirvana Jasvinder Sanghera CBE (L), who ran away from home aged 16 to escape a forced marriage

What is being done to prevent women suffering honour violence and forced marriage in the UK?

Karma Nirvana, runs the only national helpline in the UK for young women (and men – who make up one in five of their callers) who are at risk of honour violence and forced marriage. They currently receive over 850 calls a month. Jasvinder Sanghera CBE, who founded the charity in 1993, is also a survivor of forced marriage. She ran away from home aged 16 and her younger sister was forced to marry the man that Sanghera had been betrothed to. Sanghera later lost another sister to suicide when she too was forced into marriage. Sanghera has been estranged from her family ever since she left: ‘When I left home I thought my family would say to me “Ok you’ve made your point, now you can come back.” Instead they said: “If you don’t come back and marry this stranger, you are dead to us.” Forced marriage is abuse – no matter what your culture or background.’

What is the UK government doing to stop honour violence and forced marriage?

Marie Claire visited Karma Nirvana’s HQ in Leeds alongside Home Secretary Amber Rudd, to hear from survivors of forced marriage and honour violence. Speaking exclusively to Marie Claire the Home Secretary explained why this issue is so important to her: ‘Forced marriage is unacceptable in this country, and we will go after people who perpetrate it and we will protect women who could be involved in it. Violence against women is a key issue in the home office and government – and that means every woman, in every culture, all who live here, need to be protected. I’m aware that sometimes people think that there are cultural sensitivities around not getting involved in some communities. I think they are wrong. We have to make sure that we protect all women.’

Arjun’s* sister was murdered by her husband earlier this year. Her husband had a history of violence against his previous wife and was a registered sex offender, something that Arjun’s family was not aware of. Arjun is the only brother of an honour violence victim to have reached out to Karma Nirvana in 25 years, because the shame surrounding honour violence is still so strong in many communities. He told the Home Secretary: ‘My sister’s husband shut her in the house for forty days. He would put a cloth in her mouth and abuse her. When her body was found it was covered in bruises and burns.’

Sanghera is proud that Karma Nirvana’s work has led to an increase in the reporting of honour violence, where before there was silence. Among other things, the charity trains police forces across the UK, carries out risk assessments, offers refuge and helps plan escapes. ‘We tell girls to put metal spoons in their underwear if they are being taken out of the country against their will,’ Sanghera explains. It’s an easy and inauspicious way to alert airport authorities and provide a chance to escape. The charity also visits schools to raise the issue among students – so far, they have received an average of three referrals per school.

Although refusing a forced marriage meant never seeing or speaking to her family again, Sanghera takes comfort in knowing that her own children will never be  in the same situation: ‘If I was sixteen today, I would make the same decision. My children are never going to inherit that legacy of abuse. The cycle stops with me.’

To find out how you can support Karma Nirvana, visit their website at karmanirvana.org.uk

Contact Karma Nirvana’s helpline confidentially on 0800 5999 247, (Mon-Fri, 9am-5pm)

 

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