‘Forced marriages in the UK well above 100,000’ – Jasvinder Sanghera

Jasvinder Sanghera

‘Forced marriages in the UK well above 100,000’ – Jasvinder Sanghera


By Naomi Canton

Today the film Honour, which saw its London premiere at the Asia House Pan Asia Film Festival, is released at cinemas in the UK. It is about honour killings in the UK, the victims of which are often fleeing forced marriages. Jasvinder Sanghera  founded Karma Nirvana in 1993 in her Derby front room to break the silences of victims of forced marriage in the UK. Sanghera, a 48-year-old Briton of Indian Punjabi extraction, fled a forced marriage at the age of 16 and wrote about her experiences in the book Shame (2007). In an interview with Naomi Canton she speaks about the scale of the problem in Britain.

Your national helpline was set up in 2008. Last year you were receiving approximately 600 calls per month but by this year that number had doubled. What nationality are the victims you help?

About 65 per cent are from British-born Pakistani and Indian communities and the majority are Muslim, Sikh and Hindu but that is because they are the more settled communities in the UK. We also help Iranian, Kurdish, Bangladeshi and Afghan victims but there is an issue of reaching out to some of these communities. The majority of our female victims are 14 to 24. Fifteen per cent of victims are men, including gay men.

Are forced marriages instigated by first-generation South Asian immigrants who are just following outdated cultural practices?

No, forced marriage is still prevalent in India and Pakistan.  Most of the South Asian communities that have settled in the UK, even the second and third generations, have strong links to South Asia. One of the incentives for forced marriage is to maintain and secure these links and perhaps secure a visa for someone from the rural poor or to keep land and money in the family.

Is it just people from rural lower class backgrounds?

No, as with domestic violence this abuse cuts across classes and so we have had people fleeing forced marriages whose families are GPs, police officers, consultants and a diplomat even.

You have helped open refuge centres that victims can move to?

That is right. We have opened several in Derby, one in Stoke on Trent and one in Burton. We have also been proactive in advocating the need for a male refuge in the UK. They are funded by the UK Government and run by agencies and they offer emergency accommodation to people fleeing abuse. They are always in great demand.

The Forced Marriage Act 2007 made it a civil offence to force someone into a marriage. The Act introduced Forced Marriage Protection Orders (FMPOs) to protect individuals. Each Order is designed to protect someone according to their individual circumstances. The Orders are issued by courts to prevent or pre-empt forced marriages from occurring. For example, the court may order someone to hand over their passport or reveal where they are. How effective are these Orders?

There was a recent incident of a young Pakistani origin British girl who got a FMPO against her family when she was aged 15 telling them they could not force her into marriage. But the wedding still went ahead when she was 16. More than 1,000 guests attended and she was raped on her wedding night. Mr Justice Holman did not perceive that to be a breach of the FMPO and threw out the case against her mother and aunt.  One real issue is that many of these victims are returned back to the perpetrators (family) with little monitoring and can be placed under great pressure to withdraw the Order.

Is forced marriage a criminal offence in the UK?

Forced marriage and the breach of a FMPO becomes a criminal offence this year and gained Royal Assent in March 2014. The Prime Minister has given his commitment to this law stating how forced marriage is a modern form of slavery, therefore England and Wales will have a specific criminal offence of forced marriage this year.  The main elements of the law means it will be a criminal offence to force someone to marry. The law criminalises the luring of a person to a territory of a state for the purpose of forcing them to enter into marriage. It will also consider the use of deception with the intention of causing another person to leave the United Kingdom for the intention of forcing that person to marry.

Maximum penalty on conviction on indictment will be imprisonment for a term not exceeding seven years and/or a fine.  The benefits are great, one being that it will send out a clear message that forcing a person to marry against their will is unacceptable. It will provide clarity for frontline professionals and also make it clear to communities that forced marriage is totally unacceptable and will not be tolerated in the UK. My hope is that the new law will deter offenders from actively seeking to force someone to marry.

Often the professionals make out it’s a cultural practice. They are afraid of getting it wrong, or of offending communities, as they have been trained to be culturally sensitive.  This can impact on victims not being believed or treated less seriously.  We need to give both professionals and victims confidence to report and for this to be dealt with as a child and public protection issue.

There are significant risks linked to forced marriage in the UK. Shafilea Ahmed went to five different organisations and yet was murdered.

One of the ways families deal with a girl who they consider is shameful is forcing her into marriage and sending her to India or Pakistan.  Many parents believe they are doing the right thing to protect the status of the family and so show no remorse. There is very little uproar among the South Asian community or among religious leaders.  There remains a need for strong community leadership as they have the power to change the hearts and minds of communities.

In 2012 Farzana and Iftikhar Ahmed were found guilty of murdering their 17-year old British Pakistani daughter Shafilea Ahmed at their family home by suffocating her. They were both jailed for life. The court heard that shortly before her death in 2003, the teenager had rejected a suitor in marriage arranged by her parents on a trip to Pakistan. Why are you campaigning for a serious case review into her murder?

Shafilea went to teachers, the police, social services and housing and run away from home on many occasions whereby she was placed in emergency accommodation as a result of her disclosing to professionals about the physical and psychological abuse she was suffering.  On one occasion she was drugged and taken to Pakistan on plane and presented with a marriage. To prevent this she drank bleach during that 2003 trip that resulted in her having to return to the UK for emergency hospital treatment.

She was a normal kid born in the UK who was abused just for embracing British culture. She wanted to have the right to choose who to marry and to have an education. Her parents deemed her behaviour to be shameful and dishonourable.

We wish to highlight lessons to be learnt as her death is significant to all the victim callers to our helpline. It is also extremely important to keep these memories alive as these victims are often forgotten and since her death there have been many more murders.

In 2012 the UK Government’s Forced Marriage Unit gave support related to a possible forced marriage in 1485 cases. In 2013 it handled 1,302 cases.

That is only the tip of the iceberg. I believe the actual figure of forced marriages in the UK is well above 100,000. This abuse remains underreported abuse as our victims are extremely isolated with multiple perpetrators. We are working hard to reduce this isolation including working with airport staff to help them spot signs as hundreds of young girls go through British airports under the guise of a holiday or family death and are then presented with a  forced marriage when they arrive.

The majority of forced marriages we deal with take place overseas but I have no doubt that some take place in the UK.  Some of our victims have been promised to someone from birth, some practise first cousin marriage and engagements can take place from the age of five. The youngest victim of those 2012 statistics was aged two.

What state are the people in who call your help lines?

Often they are feeling fear, they might be facing death threats and often they have feelings of guilt and shame. Often they have reported their fears to various people of authority, including to their school teacher and not been believed or a lack of understanding places them at greater risk. One head teacher even tore down our posters because she did not want to offend certain communities.

Tell me about your sister and your own experience.

My sister Robina set herself on fire and died aged 24 because her husband was abusing her. He was Sikh of the same caste and it had been a love marriage.  She suffered horribly but because it was a love marriage my parents told her: “You made your bed, now lie in it.” She went to see community leaders and was simply told to go back to her husband. I was promised to a man in India from the age of eight. When I was 14 I said I wanted to do my GCSEs and did not want to marry and then at 15 I was taken out of school and kept a prisoner in my own home. The man they wanted me to marry was a Punjabi of the same caste. They kept a lock on the door, someone was watching and food was brought to my room.  There was a chance to escape so I ran away at the age of 16 to make the point that I did not wish to marry a stranger.  I had no confidence and I missed my family terribly. I love them and I still do. They made me feel like I was the horrible one who had dishonoured them. The police found me and told me to ring my parents.  My mother told me to come back and marry him or I was dead in their eyes.  I don’t speak to my family now. I am not married but I have three children who will not inherit a legacy of abuse and this makes my decision worthwhile as they will have rights and freedoms.

In Shame Travels (2012) you go to find some of your relatives in India?

I met one of my sisters who said she believed we could choose whom we married and said she did not see my sisters protest when they came to India for their weddings. It was good to see her and see the rural Punjab community that my family grew up with. Although tradition and culture is a good thing, they are not if they are used to oppress someone. Sikhism is underpinned by equality of women. It was founded to abolish the caste system. Yet despite that there is this silence among these communities in the UK.



Honour was released in at cinemas in the UK today. 

To read the Asia House review of Honour click here.

To read an interview with the director of Honour Shan Khan click here.