British Girls and Force Marriage

Force  marriage in UK

Every year, a number of British youngsters face the prospect of a forced marriage. While most agree with the concept of an arranged marriage, and agree that their parents are in the best position to choose their prospective partner, they feel the final decision on when they get married and who to should rest with them and their future spouse.

British consular services recognise the need to provide aid for young British nationals in this situation and, now, a youngster can simply pick up the phone, or pop into a consular service office to get help in opting out of a marriage that they are not happy with or, are not ready for. Writes Towheed Feroze.

For Farzana Begum (name changed to protect her identity), a teenage British Bangladeshi, life in the UK is a distant dream. She remembers having ice cream walking back from school, having many different friends and looking forward to a worthwhile career. She felt safe in the loving arms of her family and the closeness of her community. But having survived an attempt at forcing her into marriage by her brother, and forced labour in her brother’s house to prepare her for this marriage, she finds it hard to cling to her memories of the UK. Now, 15 years of age, she lives in Sylhet with her mother, trying to forget the nightmare subjected on her by a family member she once trusted. She is now safe, once again, surrounded by a community in Sylhet, much like she remembers in the UK. But the scars of her experience remain and it is natural that the healing will not be fast.

Farzana’s father passed away a few years ago and although she is still only a teenager, people approach her mother almost everyday with marriage proposals for her. She is embarrassed by this and is adamant she wants to finish her Islamic and Bangla studies before getting married. Her studies will prepare her for a future where she will have self-respect and an individual identity she says.

‘Of course, I will get married but first I need to understand myself and develop a skill so that I am not a social burden and am capable of assuming the position of a 21st century Muslim woman, who is religious, kind, respectful of Islamic norms but at the same time assertive and independent in thought,’ she says.

But Farzana’s plight is not a singular case. Every day, youngsters like her, who grow up in the UK, often find that the process of their growing up is abruptly and ferociously interrupted by human rights abuse for which they are hardly prepared.

‘We have nothing against arranged marriage. It’s natural that a girl will get married and start a family but there is an age for it and there is the matter of the girl’s consent,’ says an NGO worker in Sylhet, also an expert in dealing with young girls faced with imposed marital engagements.

Farzana also knows that one day she will get married but strongly feels that she needs to be prepared for it.

For a 15 year old, she is astoundingly mature and instead of saying that her main objective in life is to tie the knot, she further adds: ‘When I am older, I want to help others; maybe I will be in a benevolent profession.’

During a recent visit to Sylhet, Julian Braithwaite, Director, Consular Services of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO), met Farzana to inquire about her and to ensure that she knew of her rights to consular help in case of emergency.

Farzana was visibly delighted by the attention showed to her and though she had to endure ill treatment from family members with parochial perceptions, in the presence of the consular group, that also included David Grahame, Regional Consular Director, she felt an inclination to talk about the good old days in the UK.

‘I watched East-Enders and loved watching wrestling a lot,’ says Farzana and adds, ‘I also loved my time in the kitchen where my mother taught me to cook.’

I just want to get along with everybody, she adds and therein we see the foundation of a mentality that is both liberal and conservative at the same time.

But, for the time being, she will be living in Sylhet and will go to the UK after she is 21.

‘I am studying here and I want to go back to the UK, but after I am an adult,’ observes the 15 year old and adds that she would also like to marry before she goes, but reminds that ‘marriage has to happen with her consent.’

Talking about forced marriage and other consular related issues, Julian Braithwaite said that there needs to be increased communication in the UK and Bangladesh to raise awareness.

‘This should target young men and women to inform them of their rights and available support, including help lines in the UK,’ said the Director, Consular Services and added that communication could be through television, satellite channels broadcast in the UK, handing out of information sheets before travel and through sms texts.

At any given time it is thought that there are up to 40 thousand British Bangladeshis in Sylhet and weddings are regular events. However, youngsters, too young to realise the intricacies of marriage and having no prior idea of the marriage that is being arranged for them, find themselves in a trap. Aklima (name changed to protect her identity) is a Bangladeshi who works for the British High Commission. She says, “A marriage in which the people getting married are not given a choice is against Bangladeshi culture and Islamic Law. So, I feel that in helping youngsters escape these situations, I am upholding Bangladeshi traditions and safeguarding Islamic Law.” She continues, ‘Most parents feel that they are doing the right thing in forcing their son or daughter into such a marriage but often, these are poor matches. The couple finds it difficult to adapt to a life together where one has a British education and the other hasn’t. Many of these matches are very unhappy and many lead to divorce.’

David Grahame, the Consular Regional Director, reflects that all too often he hears of cases where a British youngster is taken to Bangladesh on the pretext of a sick elder relative, or a cousin’s marriage, only to find that once here they are being forced to marry someone they know nothing about, have nothing in common with and have not prepared themselves for what marriage may mean. “We are making great efforts,” he adds, “to try and help British youngsters who find themselves in this situation.”

As part of the consular services of the British government, the road from the Sylhet airport to the city has large placards giving information about forced marriages, and the help that British passport holders can get in all matters ranging from imposed nuptials to lost passports to unacceptable treatment from family members.

As for Farzana, we can hope with good reason, that her wounds will heal and one day she manages to go back to the UK looking ahead to a future where life for her is based on independent thoughts and choices and, the word ‘force’ is no longer used.

Forced Marriage Facts:

In 2008, the joint Home Office and Foreign and Commonwealth Office Forced Marriage Unit gave advice or support in more than 1600 separate incidences of possible forced marriages and directly intervened to help victims in 420 assistance or immigration cases.

A study by Dr Nazia Khanum, forced marriage, family cohesion and community engagement: national learning through a case study of Luton (2008) suggested that at lest 3000 young women are the victims of forced marriages in Britain each year.

The Forced Marriage Act 2007 came into force on 25 November 2008, and offers civil remedies to protect victims or potential victims of forced marriage and protecting those already in such marriages.

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