From the Observer, with thanks to Susan:
Ayse was 14 when she was smuggled into Britain and forced to marry her cousin. Family members turned out in large numbers to welcome her at the illegal ceremony in a north London public hall.
‘They kept whispering in my ear to ask why I wasn’t smiling,’ recalls Ayse, now 20 and living in a refuge in east London. ‘I told them I was terrified and desperate, that I was just a child and far too young to get married. I pleaded with them to help me escape, but no one saw anything wrong in what was happening. I begged my husband not to marry me, but he told me I had no choice.’
Despite being two years below the British age of consent, Ayse was moved into her cousin’s family home, where she lived openly as his wife in the local Kurdish Turkish community.
‘I was all alone in a foreign country, unable to speak the language,’ she said. ‘I was trapped. Until I escaped, I didn’t even realise that marrying at 14 wasn’t legal in Britain: everyone I knew in London regarded it as normal.’
In the two years before she reached 16, the sex Ayse was coerced into having with her cousin was statutory rape. ‘It was disgusting, awful,’ she said. ‘I used to scream and cry all night. I was too young, too tender. It killed me inside. Life became meaningless.’
Ayse’s new family refused her permission to continue school and kept her a virtual prisoner in their home. During her four-and-a-half year marriage, Ayse was treated as a servant by her new family and prevented from speaking to anyone outside their immediate circle.
As she matured, Ayse became increasingly desperate and, after twice attempting suicide, found the courage to climb through a window and flee.
‘I knew the cost escaping would have on my life. I now live in fear of being tracked down and killed by my husband’s family. I have been rejected by my family back home and by the Kurdish community here. As a young girl, I could not face the thought of how my life would be if I escaped. But once I became a woman, I developed the strength to take that step.’
Authorities have long battled to stop the traffic in underage British girls taken back to their country of origin to be married off by their parents. But an Observer investigation has discovered that a growing number are now being married without leaving Britain. The ceremonies are known as community marriages.
‘They’re happening and numbers are growing,’ said Peter Cripps, head of the Community Safety Unit at Shoreditch police station in east London. The Metropolitan Police is one of the few forces to admit that such marriages take place on its territory.
‘I’d say we were at the stage with community marriages now that we were at with honour killings six years ago. That is, the idea is so horrible and incredible most people don’t accept they’re happening. Six years ago, honour killings were barely even talked about, but now the police are getting convictions. Basically, we’re waiting for community marriages to hit the news the same way, then we expect a flurry of cases.’
Community marriages are held in accordance with the religious laws of many south Asian, Turkish, Middle Eastern and north African cultures. After the ceremony, the girl is moved into the home of her ‘husband’. She is raped in the name of marital sex, frequently abused by her new family and allowed to attend school only if it would attract the attention of the law if she left.
Ann Cryer, MP for Keighley, has demanded an urgent meeting with the Minister for Children, Margaret Hodge, next week to discuss the issue. Cryer, who drove through Labour’s action plan on forced marriages now wants to create similar guidelines for underage community marriages.
‘Entire communities are complicit in this,’ she said. ‘And unless the Government does something about it, a rapidly increasing number of underage girls will be forced into situations where they are subjected to statutory rape in the name of culture and tradition.’
Cryer learnt this specific form of forced marriage existed only when she received a call from a school concerning a 15-year-old who is now believed to have been married to a 41-year-old relative.
‘A young girl had gone to her teachers one Friday before Christmas, saying she didn’t want to go home because she suspected her parents intended marrying her off that weekend,’ she said.
But when the teachers phoned social services, they were told the earliest appointment available was the following Tuesday. ‘The school protested, but social services were unmoved,’ Cryer said. ‘It was a completely inappropriate response and we’ve launched an investigation.’
The teachers were eventually forced to take her back home. Their intervention, however, seemed to have dissuaded the parents from carrying out their plans, but a few weeks later the school contacted Cryer again. ‘Apparently the child’s demeanour has completely changed in the past few weeks,’ she said.
She has begun missing school for long periods of time and when she attends, a man waits for her at the gates at break times, lunch and after school. ‘When she does turn up, she is completely introverted,’ said Cryer. ‘It’s like she’s in deep trauma or shock.’
Cryer is investigating, but her attempt is complicated by the fact the child is now refusing to talk. ‘If the case is going to stick, we have to persuade the girl to give evidence against her family and if we go in, all guns blazing, she could deny the whole thing,’ she said.
The hermetic nature of the communities involved means that in the vast majority of cases no one who is not a close family friend is aware that any specific ceremony is taking place.
‘We know this happens a lot, but it tends not to come to wider notice until much later when the girl seeks help and is able to find a way of doing so,’ said Dave Macnaghten, who sits on the Association of Chief Police Officers’ forced marriage steering group. ‘Unfortunately, if that happens at all, it takes place many years afterwards when the girl has found the maturity and courage to escape.’
Even those who live and work in the community have been unable to solve the problem ‘We don’t hear of the cases where the marriage takes place in this country any more than the authorities do,’ said Houzan Mahmoud, a domestic violence adviser for the Middle East Centre for Women’s Rights. ‘These communities have become ghettoised. The girls don’t know where to go for help. They believe the prestige of their whole family is at stake.’
Zahir Fatima, director of Kiran Asian Women’s Aid, has come across five cases of underage community marriages.
‘Often we only hear about it by mistake,’ she said. ‘When the women finally escape, they tell us the age they married in the course of telling us about all the other abuse they have suffered at hands of their husbands and families.
‘I’ve met quite a lot of young girls who were bought into this country by much older men. The youngest was a 12-year-old from Kashmir, who was bought over six years ago to marry her first cousin, a man in his late twenties.’
About a year later, the girl gave birth to a son. ‘She worked in a factory in the north of England and though the whole south Asian community there knew she was married and had a son, despite being just 13, they didn’t find it odd,’ said Fatima.
The girl began to be abused by her husband and made several suicide attempts. ‘She was desperate, she was just a child,’ said Fatima. ‘But I only learnt about when she had grown up enough to flee the abuse and ended up in our refuge.’
The police believe that a central problem in convincing the local community to report these marriages is the belief that they are acting in the best interests of their community.
‘Parents have no fear of getting caught because they have no sense that they’re doing anything wrong,’ said Jim Blair, head of the Metropolitan Police’s Diversity Directorate. ‘Parents who force their children into marriages justify their behaviour as building stronger families and protecting cultural and religious traditions.’
Guidelines concerning child protection procedures and forced marriage were given to every police station and social service office in 2001, but officials admit they frequently fail to reach those on the front line.
‘I hear of incidents concerning community marriages all the time, but those with the power to act often don’t know what to do when confronted with real-life examples,’ said Monawara Bakht, manager for NSPCC Young People’s Centre Unit and a chair of Acpo’s forced marriage steering group.
Anticipating which communities might be more likely to approve of underage community marriages is also difficult because it depends on different traditional readings of central religious texts. According to some interpretations of, for example, Sharia law, a woman can be married as soon as she reaches puberty, which can be as young as nine.
But some say there are many other reasons why traditional families are feeling an increased anxiety and pressure to marry off their underage daughters.
‘It is impossible to identify any single reason, but izzat, or honour, always plays a large role,’ said Arvinder Lall, from the Ashiana Project in east London which runs the only refuge in Britain for women fleeing forced marriages.
Lall says the daughter’s izzat links her behaviour to the honour of her entire family. If a girl behaves badly – that is, if the family judges she is becoming too independent, too westernised or is gaining the attention of other men – she could destroy the izzat of them all. ‘It’s very easy to damn these parents, but it’s important to remember that they’re not doing it to be cruel.
‘First-generation immigrants fought for their culture to be accepted in Britain. Now they’re watching as their achievements are whittled away by their own, increasingly westernised children. They’re desperate to protect their culture and this is an extreme way in which they try to do that.’
What the men get out of marrying an underage girl is the prospect of a malleable wife who has not yet learnt to be independent or question the role a strict Islamic wife is expected to fulfil.
Lall was recently hired to teach police in Cambridgeshire about forced marriages after they found themselves dealing with the attempted murder of a 15-year-old Asian girl from east London and the murder of her two friends.
‘When the family found she had a boyfriend, they arranged for her to get married to a member of their community,’ said Lall. ‘To escape, the girl left home with her boyfriend and two of his friends.’
On the motorway, the youths’ car was run off the road by another vehicle, killing the boyfriend’s two friends. Although the girl is now living in a police safe house, a lack of evidence has prevented charges being brought.
Laili Sadr, also from the Ashiana project, is still haunted by the case of Ashana, a 15-year-old girl from east London who was being pressured by her family to marry a young local man from her own community. Sadr spent six weeks trying to persuade Ashana to report her case to social services, but the child refused and eventually severed all contact.
‘Ashana was more like a 12-year-old than a 15-year-old,’ said Sadr. ‘She was terrified of getting married, but what young girl could face the complete rejection and fury from her community? She was crying when she came to see us. She didn’t have a clear idea of what marriage meant – and certainly didn’t want to have sex – but felt she had no choice.’
Shortly after the ceremony, Ashana’s mobile stopped working and Sadr never heard from her again. ‘I pray that she’s safe. But there’s no way I can be certain.’
Community leaders are at a loss as to how to deal with a crime that few can prove occurs. ‘There are already enough laws to stop this sort of practice and they are having no effect’ said Fatima. ‘Community integration is the only answer, but that shows no sign of happening.’
Cryer adds: ‘I expect there to be a surge in numbers because, in contrast to the rest of the British population, there’s disproportionate number of young people in the south Asian community reaching marriageable age.
‘But there is no appetite among left-wing campaigners to tackle the issue because they are terrified of being called racist. If you take a stand on this issue in Bradford, you are accused of demonising the south Asian community. As a result, many politicians and other people feel they are not allowed to talk about this for fear of being told they are doing the BNP’s work for them.’
Government officials deny they are afraid to risk controversy and claim that funding, not courage, is the issue. Heather Harvey, from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, recently come across the case of a 13-year-old from Yemen, who lived openly with her husband and baby in London.
‘These cases will continue until we have some way of centrally collating evidence of the trend,’ she said. ‘At the moment, no single organisation collects every record of this practice, which means we can’t prove it is widespread. And unless we can prove it is a trend, we can’t get funding to tackle it.’
In her east London refuge, Ayse weeps uncontrollably when she thinks about her past and her future. ‘I had my childhood taken away and missed out on all my teenage years. I missed every kind of love, even my own mother’s, and am finding it very difficult to put my life back together. Sometimes I still wonder if it’s worth trying to have a future. Many days, I’m not at all sure that it is.’