More than a dozen children in Lancashire have been saved from forced marriages in the past two years but experts predict there could be many more hidden victims across the county.
A total of 17 protection orders, for 14 girls and three young men, have been issued since 2016 but a wall of silence around the issue means many more young people could be victims.
Two of the cases were in Preston and the remainder in the east of the county. For 12 of the youngsters the risks were deemed so high they were taken into the care of the council.
But experts fear they may be the tip of the iceberg, with many cases going unreported.
Nationally out of 371 enquiries to the Forced Marriage Protection Unit in 2016, some 23 per cent of cases were from the north west with some youngsters reportedly vanishing during the school holidays and never making their way back to school after being shipped abroad into a life they do not want.
Charity worker Shigufta Khan, chief executive The Wish Centre, which supports victims of forced marriages, welcomed the council’s efforts tackling the issue but said more needs to be done to support victims.
She said: “Victims and survivors of honour-based abuse and forced marriage need and deserve a chance to rebuild their lives.
“That includes a safe home and community. Professionals and communities must work together to ensure this is possible and to never forget the continued challenges for families as they move towards a ‘settled’ and ‘safe’ life after facing abuse.”
The Protection Order statistics were presented to a recent meeting of Lancashire County Council’s Children’s Services Scrutiny Committee. Council Officer Victoria Gent, head of service for Children’s Social Care East, told councillors: “We have to work together on this.”
She stressed: “It is a small percentage of the work we deal with in children’s social care. The majority is in East Lancashire and within that predominantly in Pendle. We do have a very good legal framework and there are distinct actions we can take.”
Staff were guided, she said, by the “one chance rule” knowing that if a case of forced marriage is suspected they have a very limited time to act.
The council tends to be the first port of call for referrals from schools and other agencies but other organisations can also apply for protection orders.
The County Council says it has various weapons in the fight against forced marriage and while orders are approved by a court, the children and young people are also offered support through Child In Need and Child Protection Plans.
Wall of silence
“It is very difficult to state the scale of the problem because a large number of cases go under reported.”
Peter Yates from Lancashire Constabulary’s Public Protection Unit says a historic wall of silence around the issue of forced marriage is slowly being broken down but more needs to be done to get the issue into the open.
In Lancashire police work across three command units, with resources dealing with forced marriage and related issues particularly focused in the east of the county.
“People are feeling more confident about reporting forced marriage,” he says. “For years and years it’s been kept within a family.
“The real worrying times are school holiday periods, particularly the six to seven weeks in the summer. You have six or seven weeks without anybody really having any contact with that person apart from their family.”
He continued: “I’m not saying it is a major issue in Lancashire, but there are 14,15,16 year olds who leave school in July in anticipation they are going to be back in September and they never find their way back into school.”
He added: “People will be fooled into leaving the country believing they are going on holiday. Return tickets can be cancelled.
“There is a massive grey area between someone agreeing an arranged marriage or are they actually being forced into marriage. They may agree an arranged marriage because they can’t see an alternative. There are lots and lots of very,very successful arranged marriages out there.”
But, he says, a forced marriage can be “very,very dire” with honour based abuse for those who do not cooperate with such a destiny.
“We definitely find with a lot of people who feel they are being forced into a marriage every other aspect of their family life is wonderful. They have loving caring parents but this is the one issue which can cause major problems. That’s the only issue they have ever become at odds with against their family members.”
Peter says the force usually deals with young women in the 16 - 25 year age range, but there has been a rise in the number of boys affected in recent years.
“It’s mainly females but we are seeing slight increase going up to 20 per cent nationally where males are making contact with police around forced marriage and associated honour based abuse,” he said.
What to do if you are at risk?
Young people who fear they are being taken abroad to enter into a forced marriage are being urged to use a simple trick to escape.
Peter Yates, from Lancashire Constabulary’s Public Protection Unit, says young people should hide a spoon or other metal object in their underwear to set off the detectors at airports and avoid the flight at the last minute.
He said: “If somebody fears they are about to be taken out of the country and forced into a marriage and they are not able to make contact with anybody before being taken out of the airport they could put some metal in their underwear.
“The last thing you do is go through security and it will set off alarms.”
He added: “It’s a way of raising an alert when you don’t have the opportunity to raise alerts.”
Peter also advises:
++ Contact the national Forced Marriage Unit and/or check out its website.
++ Share your travel plans, dates of travel and return, details of where you are staying, who you are staying with and a copy of your passport with a friend at home before you leave.
++ Make sure you have details of the number of the British embassy in the country you are visiting.
‘I was beaten for 19 years’
Zubeda Hansrot suffered two decades of abuse after being forced into a marriage she didn’t want. The mum-of-three spoke at a recent event at St John’s Minster in Preston to mark International Women’s Day.
Zubeda, who is of Indian heritage, told the audience about how she escaped her abusive marriage and managed to rebuild her life.
She said: “I grew up in Preston all my life. I was not educated because my parent’s mentality with girls was that they are meant to be at home.
“Luckily I learnt English through my friends and eventually I did go to school but it was on and off.
“I come from a very strict religious family and I had to wear a hijab for my dad’s honour. I had a forced marriage and then had three children. I put up with the marriage, where I was being beaten, for 19 years.
“I kept going back to my parents but my father always used to send me back to him because of his dignity.
“Then one day I made a decision. There was no point in going back to my family so I went to a solicitor. When I took out an injunction on my husband, all hell broke loose but I turned round to my family and said, Where were you when I needed help? You always sent me back to him to be beaten.’”
Now Zubeda is bringing up her children as a single mother and is breaking into advocacy work to support other women who have found themselves in her situation.
Long road for victims
Fleeing a forced marriage is just the start of a long journey for many young people affected, according to one charity leader.
Shigufta Khan, chief executive of Blackburn and Darwen District Without Abuse, which runs The Wish Centre, welcomes the council’s use of protection orders to help prevent forced marriages - but says victims need help rebuilding their lives after fleeing.
She said: “Usually what victims want to do is leave and flee the area and we support them to do that.
“When the orders first came out we were involved quite heavily in trying to get uptake. A lot of victims don’t want to go down that route because it means facing their families.”
Between April and September 2017, 23 victims of honour based abuse and forced marriage sought help from the refuge. In the same period in 2016 there were 35 cases.
But Shigufta predicts that the real figures for those facing a forced marriage will be much higher.
“The figures will be much higher,” she said. “These are figures from just one agency in Blackburn with Darwen.”
The Wish Centre helps victims who come to them from outside as well as within the immediate area. She praised the Government for making forced marriage a criminal act, but stressed the best defence against forced marriage is good education in schools about the issue and the support of help agencies such as The Wish Centre.
In the last two years centre representatives from The Wish Centre have regularly attended social groups and community centres to provide awareness raising sessions about honour based abuse and forced marriage.
She noted: “Some families may always have to manage the threat of violence from family and extended community members (beyond the individuals they ‘know’), which can cause extreme and life-lasting fear and isolation.
“A South Asian woman fleeing forced marriage may always need to manage these risks by avoiding things like ethnic food shops and local mosques; parts of the local community that could have embraced and provided protection to her and her children.”
She believes such risks can be underestimated by organisations such as social services.
“There is an assumption that distance will remove the risk and that once they are in refuge the agencies’ responsibility ends,” she said. “Sadly, leaving often increases the risk of harm, and distance does not diminish this.”