Published: 09/03/2008 00:00 - Updated: 19/02/2009 00:38

Breadth of forced marriages exposed

BY JESSICA CUNNIFFE
An academic has lifted the lid on the extent of forced marriage in Luton - and revealed the town is not equipped to deal with the problem.

Dr Nazia Khanum OBE found that more than 300 cases of forced marriage are reported in Luton each year in the first local investigation into the issue.

LIFTING THE LID: Dr Nazia Khanum OBEBut this figure is the tip of the iceberg and the actual number of these 'heinous breaches of human rights' will never be known.

"A significant proportion of Luton residents who marry each year may feel that they have been forced into marriage," she says.

Her findings are backed up by Bedfordshire Police, with one officer saying she receives three calls a week from Luton residents regarding forced marriage, and Asian support group Khidmat claiming it is currently dealing with 'so many instances' of forced marriages.

Dr Khanum, director of Equality in Diversity, spoke to local victims from a variety of backgrounds who said that forced marriage is inextricably linked to bullying, suicide, domestic violence and even honour killings.

The report, commissioned by Margaret Moran MP, the Home Office and the Metropolitan Police, uses Luton as a case study to reveal the national issue.

It shows that 85 per cent of victims are women - specifically girls aged 16 who are coerced into wedlock when compulsory education ends and marriage becomes legal.

In Luton forced marriages mainly occur in Kashmiri and Bangladeshi communities - who justify them through an appeal to traditional values - though it is not an exclusively south Asian issue.

However, Dr Khanum concludes that Luton is poorly equipped with funding and resources to tackle this problem.

She says that 'Luton's refuges are few and always full' and that groups do not have adequate advice services to assist people threatened with forced marriage.

With several posts for women's advice being discontinued at voluntary groups, and organisations such as Khidmat and Luton Multicultural Women's Coalition crying out for funding, Dr Khanum highlights the deficiency in local facilities.

Victims in Luton interviewed for the report paint a picture of marriage based on false information, persuasion, coercion, blackmail, physical threats and suicide - and the fear of kidnap by bounty hunters if they flee.

There are also many instances of 'false marriage' - consent to marriage by deception - such as a woman who married a man and later discovered he was disabled.

She was then 'forced by the groom's family to consummate the marriage in an unthinkable manner'.

Dr Khanum found that 'the time of greatest risk of forced marriage comes when they complete compulsory education at sixteen'.

One victim doing her A Levels says she has to 'live like a prisoner' and fears that as soon as she completes her education she will be forced into marriage.

Although rife, the problem is hard to quantify because most cases do not get reported.

Mobeen Qureshi, General Secretary of Asian support group Khidmat, told Luton/Dunstable on Sunday that he is aware of 'so many instances' of forced marriage.

"We have three or four serious cases of this at the moment," he said.

"Every month we have ten to 15 cases reported.

"We are dealing with cases where women have married men with mental health problems which they did not know about.

"These things are happening and these cases are alive. We have got no funding at all." He added that age gaps in these marriages are a big problem - the most extreme case being a 22-year-old woman forced to marry an 80-year-old man.

The report accuses Bedfordshire Police of not treating forced marriage as a separate issue, instead classing it as domestic violence.

However a spokeswoman confirmed that the police will be recording cases of forced marriages separately.

Detective Sergeant Michelle Welsh, who deals with cases of domestic abuse in Luton, says she receives two or three calls a week asking for advice on the issue of forced marriage. She has actively dealt with 18 cases between May and November 2007.

A police spokeswoman said: "Bedfordshire Police has a dedicated domestic abuse unit manned by specialist officers committed to working with other agencies and survivors.

"The issue of forced marriage is an element of domestic abuse as sometimes violence is used, emotional blackmail and often coercion.

"It can begin at a very young age and the police and other agencies are here with support for those who need help.

"Anyone looking for advice can contact the police in complete confidence on 01582 401212."

Dr Khanum concludes that a steering group for forced marriage should be set up in Luton and that 'local leaders, priests and imams must get the message across to their communities that forced marriage is unacceptable'.

The report adds: 'Forced marriage is an abominable abuse of human rights.

'The sooner it is removed from Luton, the better for this town.'
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