Sat, Mar 25, 2006 - Page 16 News List

When `I do' is replaced with `you will'

For youngsters forced into marriage by their families in Britain, there is little support

AFP , LONDON

Britain has launched an assault on the practice of forced marriage, which leaves many youngsters in a living nightmare.

PHOTO: AFP

Troubled by the number of youngsters of South Asian origin being forced into marriage, Britain has launched an assault on a practice that is pushing many vulnerable teenagers into a living nightmare.

Marriages without consent, or their refusal, have led to suicides and honor killings in Britain, shocking a nation

generally deemed to have successfully absorbed immigrant communities and practices.

"Younger British Asian women are increasingly self-harming and attempting suicide at rates two to three times above the national average," said Jasvinder Sanghera, 40, who helped found a refuge for South Asian women years after fleeing her own family rather than accepting a forced marriage.

"My family said: `Marry him or be dead in our eyes,'" she recalled.

As part of the British government's campaign, ministers this month unveiled emotional film clips, in English and Hindi, to raise awareness on the issue.

British Prime Minister Tony Blair's government argues that such forced -- as distinct from an accepted arranged -- marriage is a form of domestic violence and child abuse and a trans-gression of human rights. It is even considering whether to criminalize forced marriage.

Most of the cases concern people of Indian, Pakistani and Bangladeshi origin. But there are many others in Britain with ties around the world, notably to Arab states, the Balkans and West Africa, being forced into marriages.

"The people coming forward for help know the perpetrators are the people who are supposed to love them. It's an absolutely horrendous wrench," Sanghera said.

She said there was a "strong preference" within families of victims she helps to look for suitable husbands "back home," with the young woman easing the groom's passage into Britain as part of the deal.

Her Karma Nirvana refuge in Derby, central England, takes an average of 40 support calls a month and over 70 percent of her clients have issues relating to forced marriage.

She advocates warning children of the dangers in schools before they start to come under family pressure.

Sanghera recalled how, at the age of 14, she was shown a photograph of the man she was due to marry.

"They deprived me of my freedom. I suffered the emotional and physical abuse, and I ran away.

"You feel guilty, depressed and very isolated. You lose your family overnight and you are a victim made to feel like the perpetrator," she said.

The only current legal recourse concerning forced marriages is arresting people for offences such as rape and kidnap.

The Forced Marriages Unit (FMU) -- set up by the Home Office and Foreign Office -- has dealt with more than 1,250 cases brought forward by troubled spouses or relatives since it started in 2000. However, the FMU, which undertakes rescue missions in extreme cases, fears the true number may be far higher.

Sufian Miah said he was 20 when a cry for help from his terrified girlfriend Shipa landed in his letter box. It had been written on a tissue in an airplane toilet as her family took her to Sylhet in eastern Bangladesh with a view to a forced marriage.

Now his wife, Shipa, from west London, was 18 when she was bundled on the flight. She secretly handed the tissue to an air hostess as a desperate last resort.

"She said she had been taken against her will, her life was in danger and she didn't want to go back," said 31-year-old Miah, from Bromley in southeast London.

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