LONDON (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – UK charities helping victims of forced marriage and ‘honour-based’ abuse say calls to their hotlines have soared and predicted they will rise further when forced marriage becomes a criminal offence later this year.
They urged school teachers and students to be vigilant ahead of the Easter break as girls are most at risk of being forced into marriage during holidays.
Karma Nirvana, which runs a hotline funded by the Ministry of Justice, said it had received nearly 1,070 calls in January compared with just over 660 in the same month last year. The service is so overwhelmed that calls are going unanswered.
Founder Jasvinder Sanghera warned that girls could be in danger of harm and even murder unless it gets more funding to handle the increase.
“We are dealing with things like kidnap, rape, abduction, threats to kill – 14-year-old girls who are telling us they are at risk of being taken abroad,” said Sanghera, who set up Karma Nirvana 21 years ago.
“It takes an immense amount of courage to go against a whole family. What happens if we are not there at the end of the phone? What happens is that person will go back into that abusive situation, believing what their perpetrators have told them - that there is nobody out there to help them. And the likelihood of that person being significantly harmed or forced into a marriage or even killed has just been doubled.”
Sanghera said most girls contacting the hotline were aged 14 to 18. The youngest case the charity has handled concerned a five-year-old.
Recent callers include a 16-year-old who said she had been abused for years and feared her parents were about to stop her education and marry her off, another teenager who was scared she would be forced into marriage and could not escape because she was disabled, and a gay couple who had run away after the family of one threatened to take him abroad to marry.
Some callers are in fear of their lives. A 17-year-old girl told the hotline last year she was frightened her family would kill her if they found her. She had become pregnant after being raped by a family relative. Her family forced her to have an abortion and told her she deserved to die because she had brought shame on them.
Sanghera, who ran away as a teenager after her family tried to marry her off, said people who called the helpline were “the tip of the iceberg”.
The Freedom Charity, which also runs a hotline, said calls had gone up fivefold in November - partly due to increased awareness of the service following the high-profile rescue of three women from a London house in a case of alleged slavery.
“We’re having more calls than we’ve ever had before,” founder Aneeta Prem said. “We’ve gone through huge surges where we’re absolutely inundated.”
EASTER HOLIDAY RISK
The British government, which will introduce legislation banning forced marriage later this year, is keen to take a lead in tackling the issue globally. Prime Minister David Cameron, who has described forced marriage as “little more than slavery”, will host a summit on the issue in July.
Sanghera said the law would send a strong message that forced marriage should be seen as a serious abuse rather than a cultural issue, and would empower professionals to act without fear of being branded racist.
Around 40 percent of calls to the Karma Nirvana hotline are from professionals such as police, teachers, social workers and health workers who are concerned about a victim or possible victim.
Both charities warned that girls were particularly at risk during school holidays.
“Marriages and engagements will be happening in the Easter holidays so now is the time to prevent them, to spot those young people who are potentially going to be at risk, for them to be aware that they don’t have to go through this,” Sanghera said.
The Freedom Charity said girls were often unaware their families were planning to marry them off.
“Friends should be aware if someone hasn’t come back after the school holidays or hasn’t been in contact at all (and) should alert someone about it,” Prem said.
The government’s Forced Marriage Unit, which also runs a hotline, helped in 1,302 cases of possible forced marriage last year involving 74 countries. The majority of those involved were from Pakistan (42.7 percent), India (10.9 percent) and Bangladesh (9.8 percent).