In July 2014 it became a criminal offence to force someone into marriage, but a Bristol-based charity says the law could be forcing victims to “go underground” rather than see their family prosecuted.
Following a Freedom of Information request to HM Courts and Tribunal Service it was revealed that there have been “fewer than five forced marriage protection orders” made in Bristol since the introduction of the new legislation.
An order can help prevent people being married against their will, stop them being taken abroad to marry and force people to hand in passports.
“The Bristol statistics are disappointing and concerning and we need to find out why,” says Sabeena Pirooz, a lawyer who helps run the Sky Project.
“The law has sent out a strong message that forced marriage will not be tolerated but with statistics such as this, one has to seriously question whether victims have now been forced underground and are too scared to come forward due to the possible criminal prosecutions against family members.”
The Sky Project was set up in 2009 following a report by the Department of Children, Schools and Families (DCSF) which highlighted Bristol as one of 14 local authorities in the UK believed to have a high incidence of forced marriage.
“It is a very sad situation when you are brought up in the UK, going to normal schools – your parents can feel like they are losing control and that kind of control leads to things like forced marriage,” says Sabeena.
“They don’t want children to be ‘western’, wear western clothing – they think that’s outside what they are comfortable with and that can lead to horrendous situations,” she adds.
The Sky Project goes into communities, schools, police and councils to train people and “make them aware of forced marriage, because if a person comes to you may have once chance for that person to be saved,” says Sabeena.
“It’s horrendous if you are in a forced marriage. So when we deliver our training we try to stop it happening, because if this person goes abroad and doesn’t come back it is so hard to find them
“Trying to find someone hidden in a tiny village in India is impossible. You can be raped, suffer mental abuse, physical abuses – there are high suicide rates as a result. If you can prevent it – look for signs.”
There are four volunteer members of the Sky Team who have trained thousands of people between them. “We are doing this on our own time and we are so passionate about achieving and changing things,” said Sabeena.
“I went in initially because I automatically knew the cultural things that happen to Asian women. It’s very easy for me to understand the concepts which can be quite complex.
Solicitor Sabeena Pirooz volunteers for the Sky Project to help victims of forced marriages
“It’s not just an Asian issue…it affects Africans, Turkish, Somalian and gypsy communities as well,” says Sabeena.
“During out training session we also bring in Charles and Diana and the Royal family as an example – was there an issue there? We don’t just want to highlight one society.”
According to the Government’s specialist Forced Marriage Unit, women were the victims of 80 per cent of the cases they handled in 2015 but men, children and disabled people have all been victims. Sabeena says they all need long-term specialist help to support them during the process.
“It takes a lot to leave your family, everything you know and what you are aware of,” says Sabeena.
“There needs to be support after a forced marriage. Some victims don’t have their own money, they are not able to go out – they live in a totally controlled environment and they don’t know how to live on their own.
“That causes a lot of victims to go back to their family because they don’t feel they can go live on their own. What would be nice is a support network for these people so they can feel that they can go on with their lives.”
To report a forced marriage: firstname.lastname@example.org
Telephone: 020 7008 0151 From overseas: +44 (0)20 7008 0151