Children as young as 14 are contacting the police about concerns about forced marriage. Some of them use a special app to report to us if they think they are being forced into marriage. That’s according to a leading charity that specializes in helping victims of forced marriage. The leap in numbers is an unintended consequence of the government’s emergency measures. With girls and boys being unable to go to school, this raises the risk of Forced Marriage.
Founder of Freedom Charity, Aneeta Prem, told Eastern Eye exclusively: “For the first time you’ve got predominantly young girls locked down with their families, particularly dads, who may normally be at work and don’t have much to do with their daughters. But now they’re seeing them all the time and the idea of getting them married. Forced marriage is becoming more predominant because they’re seeing them underfoot.”
We also get a glimpse into the life of a Forced marriage and honour-based violence survivor. Zaeda shares her story and what happened in that dark part of her life.
The charity and the government’s Forced Marriage Unit launched an app in 2012. This is to help schoolchildren get help from the police. So far, a quarter of a million people have downloaded it onto their phones, pads, or computers.
“There’s been a substantial increase in the number of calls during the lockdown. Mainly via the app because they can’t physically pick up the phone and call us, and that’s what people need to understand,” said Prem.
“These calls are the tip of the iceberg because there are ears everywhere. The girls that we get calls from cannot even go outside for their hour of exercise. a few of the calls we have got when they have been allowed out. Some of the worst calls we get are when they tell us ‘you’ve got to help me now!.”
Another national charity, Karma Nirvana, has seen a 200 per cent rise over six weeks from 16 March to 24 April. Its website breaks down the new cases during the lockdown, and 47 new victims have contacted it because of abuse relating to forced marriage.
Forced Marriage Spikes
Ms Prem said that calls usually spike after GCSE and A-level exams, and this could produce another unintended consequence of the COVID lockdown.
“The key thing is that GCSEs and A levels aren’t taking place this year, and that’s predominantly when girls and boys are forced into marriage, after these momentous exams. As soon as the lockdowns are lifted, the exams can take place. These marriages could take place over social media or Skype, but we haven’t had any reports of that happening at the moment.”
Worryingly, it is no longer just parents who are forcing children to get married. “It’s not just the dads,” explained Prem, “It’s also the brothers that are perpetuating this. I thought we were going to see the end of forced marriage when this generation of parents had lost influence, but it’s the brothers who’re trying to assert their authority now.”
Zaeda, not her real name, said her father had been mentally and physically abusing her since she was 14 because he disapproved of how she wanted to dress. She eventually ran away after her family wanted her to marry, and she had a child. But her family tracked her down.
“I think the memory that sticks with me the most is when my dad attacked me because he found out I was seeing someone. My son and I were playing in the living room and he came storming through my front door screaming and shouting,” recalled Zaeda, who is now 22.
“I told him to get out and not to shout in front of my son, but he didn’t listen and punched me in my face. All I can remember is hearing my son screaming. I felt like I was going to die, I felt so weak, I kept trying to get up but every time I tried, my head was spinning, and I had no strength. I just wanted to get my son and run away, but I couldn’t. My brother was shouting at me saying, ‘shame on you, you dirty slag, you deserve it.’ I felt like I was nothing.”
During the pandemic, she contacted a charity, which is now helping her. But Zaeda has criticized the way the police handled her complaint.
Recent Prosecutions and Convictions
Latest figures from the Crown Prosecution Service show that 72 people were prosecuted for so-called ‘honour-based’ abuse in 2018-19, and 41 were convicted. But even it highlights that: ‘The small number of cases indicates the need for caution in interpreting this data concerning these offences.’
When it comes to this offence, figures from the Crown Prosecution Service are for offences under section 121 Anti-Social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Act 2014 and section 121 breach of a forced marriage protection order, which have been in force for five years. Three out of the eight men and women were prosecuted
A Home Office spokesperson told Eastern Eye: “Forced marriage is a devastating crime and the government is committed to eliminating all forms of so-called honour-based abuse. The joint Home Office and Foreign Office Forced Marriage Unit continue to provide advice and support to victims and potential victims of forced marriage.”
Freedom Charity & Volunteers
Aneeta Prem said: “We desperately need funding to update the app so we can put on the latest COVID advice. If there is anyone who codes or can update our app, we need your help. We are on-our-knees-desperate asking for help and support during this time. We need to update our app with great advice on what people can do if they need help during this lockdown. If we could speak to someone willing to volunteer their time, that would be helpful.”
The Victims of Forced Marriage
Eastern Eye has spoken to a victim of domestic abuse who feared she was going to be forced to marry. We have called her Zaeda to protect her identity. She is 22 years old and has faced physical abuse during the lockdown.
What form did your abuse take?
My father physically and mentally abused me from the age of 14 years. That’s the age where I began wanting to be my own person, wanting to dress the way I wanted to dress, like the way my friends dressed at school. I didn’t want to wear Asian suits anymore, I wanted to wear my own clothes. Don’t get me wrong, it wasn’t as if I wanted to run around half-naked. I just wanted to wear things like trousers and tops, you know like pretty dresses.
I’d take my clothes to school and get dressed into my ‘English clothes’, but my dad caught me one day walking with my friends. He stopped the car screaming at me and calling me a slag. I had to go home with him, and he mentally and physically tortured me all night. He punched me, dragged me around by my hair, and kept telling me that I dressed that way because I wanted to have sex with men. He said that I was dirty and that I was bringing shame to the family. I couldn’t understand why he was doing this to me, I was only wearing trousers and a top, you couldn’t see my legs or breasts or anything.
How did it affect you?
I believed that I was a bad person like I was worthless and an embarrassment to my family. I started to lose loads of weight and went down from eight and a half stones to six stones. It made me look really ill and everyone saw it. The fact that everyone could see my struggle made it harder. It made me start secretly drinking and smoking, just to get rid of the pain. I couldn’t concentrate at school and felt like I was suffocating, kind of like drowning in pain.
I hated myself and it was horrible, I had no one to turn to. My mum was also scared of my dad, she was just too weak to stand up to him. Sometimes I have really bad nightmares and hated going to sleep as I knew I’d have a nightmare about everything he’s done to me. I have anxiety and panic disorder too which makes proper sleep impossible.
How long were you abused?
I’m 22 years old now with my own child and my dad is still abusing me, so that’s about eight years I think, wow… I can’t believe it’s been that long. He found out last week that I was seeing someone. He came to my home with my brother and sister and attacked me in front of my child. Every time I hear a car I get scared, thinking that it might be my dad showing up to beat me again.
How often were you abused?
“My dad didn’t hit me every day, but he did mentally abuse me every day. Although I don’t live with my parents or even see them, he still abuses me. He rings me and threatens me. He gets my younger brother and sister to call and they abuse me too. I try not to worry about it anymore as being a mum to my child is more important.
Were you the only person in your home to be abused in this way? Were any other family members affected e.g. children?
My dad didn’t abuse my brothers or my sister, but he did abuse me and my mum. I don’t know why it was just us, and I always resented my sister because she was a daddy’s girl. She used to snitch and tell lies to my dad knowing that he would beat me. She used to call me a slag too. My baby brother used to scream and cry when he saw my dad beating me. He was only little, bless him, and he used to grab my dad’s legs to try and stop him from kicking and hitting me. When I was on the floor, my baby brother used to throw himself on top of me to protect me from the punches and my dad used to stop hitting me then. I really miss my baby brother.
Please can you share a memory that highlights what you went through?
I think the memory that sticks with me the most is when my dad attacked me recently. He found out I was seeing someone so he came storming through my front door screaming and shouting. I told him to get out and not to shout in front of my son, but he didn’t listen and punched me in the face. All I can remember is hearing my son screaming, I felt like I was going to die. I felt so weak, I kept trying to get up but every time I tried, my head was spinning and I had no strength. I just wanted to get my son and run away, but I couldn’t. My other brother was shouting at me saying, “Shame on you, you dirty slag, you deserve it.” I felt like I was nothing.
How did you escape?
“When I was living at home, I started seeing a boy. After seeing him for a while I fell pregnant, and I knew that I had to run away. I think that if my dad wasn’t the way he was, I’d probably be living at home now. I’d help my parents or I’d be at university or something. It’s just really sad because I do love my parents. I just don’t understand how any parent could do that to their own child. I feel really angry at my mum sometimes, but then I realize that it wasn’t her fault, she was just scared of him.
Who did you contact?
In the last incident, I called the police. They told me to call Women’s Aid. I called them and they said that I could go to a hostel. But told me that they didn’t have a place for me to stay and that I would have to call them every morning to see if a place was available. I did that for a couple of days, but I gave up in the end. I couldn’t tell anyone else because I was too ashamed.
How useful were the police?
The Police made me so upset. It took all of my courage to go to the police station to make a statement against my dad. They took photos of my injuries. The police said that they saw it as honour-based violence. I thought that they would arrest my dad or at least warn him to stay away from me. But nothing. My dad is still calling and threatening me. The police haven’t contacted me since I made my statement.
I know that we’ve got this coronavirus thing happening, but I thought that the police would at least check on me or call me to update me. What makes me so angry is that the police made a referral to social services. Now a social worker has contacted me saying that my son is at risk of harm and that it’s my fault. I’m so scared that they might take my son away from me.
If domestic violence charities and support groups were forced to close through lack of funding, what do you think would happen to people like you?
“I don’t know what I would have done without freedom charity. My friend told me about them, and I rang them. They gave me a support worker and they have been amazing. They have got me a solicitor who is Asian like me and she really understands what I am going through. She has helped other women and men who have gone through what I am going through now. She is helping me to get an injunction out against my dad and will be supporting me with social services. My Support Worker speaks to me every day and I don’t know what I would do without her. She helps me get through each day and has contacted the police and housing to see what they can do to support me. If I didn’t have this charity, my mental health would get even worse and I would have no one.
People like me would be forgotten if charities like Freedom didn’t exist. I even think that some people would take their own lives. I have told my story because maybe it will help someone who is going through tough times and encourage them to contact Freedom. Or any other organization like it to get help and support. It’s not fair to take funding away from organizations like this, they’re the ones that really care about people. Charities Like freedom help them to turn their lives around.