Married in shackles: pupils' horror stories

9th March 2007 at 00:00
Every year 100 UK school-age children are forced to wed. One boy was chained in a mosque for 15 days. A new law seeks to stop it

SALEEMA WAS 13 when she first saw the bruises on her sister's face. "Our father told us to wash off our make-up so we could pray. That was when I realised she was being beaten by her husband," she said.

She has a vivid memory, aged 10, of seeing her father hold an axe to her older sister's neck and threaten her with violence if she didn't agree to the marriage.

Then, when Saleema was 15, her parents dropped the bombshell. She said: "We were watching TV, just like any other day, and they started talking about the husband they had found for me."

The flights were booked for Christmas Day. Saleema was to marry a 21-year-old Pakistani she had never met. Instead, she confided in a teacher who helped her flee her home town of Derby to a refuge. She said: "My social worker left me at the station with the directions on a piece of paper. I'd never been on a train before. I didn't know how they worked."

At least 100 school-age children a year in the UK are forced to wed abroad by their parents, the Government's Forced Marriage Unit figures show.

"It's not just South Asians, but also African and Middle Eastern families," said Dr Melanie McCarry, a specialist in forced marriage at Bristol university.

Some child brides and grooms are as young as 10. And around 15 per cent are male.

Khalid, now 32, has only hazy memories of the Pakistani engagement ceremony he took part in when he was only nine.

"I thought it was just a party," he said. "All these people were putting money on me as part of the ritual and I thought, 'Great, grab it'." Six years later when his sister showed him the photographs, he realised what had happened. Then, at 17, he went on a family holiday to Pakistan that swiftly turned into a nightmare.

"We were travelling through the countryside in a horse and carriage when we stopped at a deserted village for water," he remembers. "I followed my brother-in-law into the mosque. Then I saw the mosque leader produce shackles from a sack at his side. I just ran."

Khalid raced barefoot for two hours, then hitched back into town on a bus.

He later made peace with his family, but they made a second attempt at forcing him into marriage, drugging him and chaining him inside a mosque for 15 days in an attempt to purify him of his disobedience before the ceremony. "I was going clubbing at that time back in England, smoking marijuana," Khalid admitted.

With a friend's help, he escaped back to the UK, but the pressure continued and the crunch came when his mother was taken ill and told him that if anything happened to her it would be his fault.

He agreed to a marriage with his cousin. But they split up soon after she came to England. "I told her I could not love her," he said.

Khalid's situation, though extreme, is not uncommon, according to Peter Abbott, head of the Forced Marriage Unit. He said: "Many teenagers are forced into marriage to try to correct so-called aberrant behaviour, for example to 'cure' boys of being gay or to stop girls going out with white men."

The Home Office is looking at possible legislation that would prevent spouse visas from being allocated to foreign nationals under the age of 24, restricting the supply of potential partners.

The Prime Minister has had a change of heart over Lord Lester's Forced Marriage Bill, first debated last year. He will now back the proposals: these allow victims to apply for an injunction preventing the ceremony or enable them to sue their family, but do not go so far as to make forced marriage a criminal offence.

It was feared that such moves would stigmatise ethnic minorities or discourage teenagers from informing on parents, but victims spoken to by The TES backed the legislation - their only criticism being that it did not go far enough. Says Saleema: "To anyone who says, 'Don't criminalise forced marriage', I say, try waking up in my shoes."

Some names have been changed.


Shazia Qayum (right), a forced marriage adviser at the Karma Nirvana refuge in Derby, was 15 when she was taken to Pakistan to marry a first cousin.

This is her advice for teachers.

Follow up suspicions. "When I disappeared, the school did not get in touch to see where I was, and I felt invisible," she said. "I felt, 'Why am I different to any other child?' "

Look out for signs of domestic abuse, unexplained absences, or extended holidays.(Truancy Call, the electronic system for contacting families about unauthorised absences, has produced an extended holiday absence programme specifically to monitor possible cases of forced marriage.) Hold awareness-raising days to keep staff informed.

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