Fighting Against a Silent Crime

This month’s small organisation making a big difference

Gender Human Rights

The practice of forced marriage – as opposed to merely arranged marriage – has taken root in Britain and is now widespread in some UK communities with traditional cultures of honour, pride and shame. Forced marriage occurs predominantly, though not exclusively, within south Asian communities, particularly those of Pakistani origin. Common methods of securing victims’ compliance include psychological abuse, blackmail and threats of imprisonment, sometimes accompanied by violence. Of great concern to the Foreign Office are the British citizens forcibly removed each year to Pakistan, where similar coercive tactics can be employed with near impunity.

Accurate statistics for forced marriages in the UK are hard to compile – victims tend to be reluctant to come forward, fearing retaliation by family members. However, the UK government’s Forced Marriage Unit estimates that at least 5,000 marriages take place each year without the consent of both parties. Forced marriages are commonly arranged in order to cement business relationships abroad, to obtain visas for (usually male) relatives and business contacts, or to prevent relationships with ethnic or religious outsiders. In pursuit of these aims, some families condone kidnapping, isolation, imprisonment and withdrawing children (usually girls) from education.

Once married, women in forced marriages often face rape – in-laws sometimes don’t consider a marriage contract fulfilled until the woman is pregnant – as well as other forms of abuse.

Karma Nirvana is a small charity staffed by 18 volunteer “survivors” who work nationally for the eradication of forced marriage and honour-based violence, which director Jasvinder Sanghera describes as “a silent crime”. The organisation runs three refuges in Derby, Stoke-on-Trent and Burton-on-Trent and in the past year has rescued more than 400 people. Of those, 42 per cent were minors – some as young as ten. Of the 400, 15 per cent are male and 65 per cent come from a Pakistani background. The figures point to the fact that although the problem is perceived to be one that affects women, the organisation is shortly to open its first refuge for young Asian men fleeing forced marriages, as well as a new regional base in ­Newcastle.Karma Nirvana has also established the Honour Network, a support database for young victims of forced marriage who have fled home and family and face isolation as well as feelings of guilt and shame.

In addition to offering a refuge and advice to such victims, Karma Nirvana is a participant in the national discussion about forced marriage, giving evidence to select committees and briefing the media.

Cultural sensitivity should not be an excuse for moral blindness, stresses the charity. It points to its success in tackling local schools which had tried to undermine the display of forced marriage warnings. The organisation also played a role in the passing of last year’s Forced Marriage Civil Protection Act, which gives courts the powers to make orders to help victims – or potential victims – and stop forced marriages from happening.

Education is vital for this kind of message, and Karma Nirvana sends survivors to speak to some 20 school and community forums every month. It also plans to hold a multi-faith conference with the aim of establishing a consensus among religious leaders on the issue.

The issue is often below the radar. But with 15 new rescue cases every week and more than 780 support calls since April, it’s clear that Karma Nirvana provides a vital service.