Help is at hand for forced marriage victims

District Mufti of Mirpur Hafiz Ahmed and Pervez Akhtar, of the Khari Sharif Welfare Society, at the   conference on forced marriage in Bradford earlier this month

District Mufti of Mirpur Hafiz Ahmed and Pervez Akhtar, of the Khari Sharif Welfare Society, at the conference on forced marriage in Bradford earlier this month

First published in Behind the News Bradford Telegraph and Argus: Photograph of the Author by , Bradford Chief Reporter

The issue of forced marriage is a very real one, right across the district.

Each year the Forced Marriage Unit, specifically set up in 2005 to deal with the issue, is aware of around 1,500 cases worldwide annually.

In 2010, the FMU dealt with 1,735 cases, including a number of men forced into a union against their will.

Nine per cent of all cases originate from the UK, and more than ten per cent of those come from Yorkshire.

Up to 56 per cent of overall worldwide cases come from Pakistan, and up to 70 per cent of those cases are in the Mirpur region, where many people from Bradford originate from.

Such is the drive to raise awareness of the issue, a contingent from Pakistan has held a series of conferences across the UK.

Community leaders in Bradford came together to meet the Khari Sharif Welfare Society support group, based in Mirpur, which helps those needing to escape forced marriage.

The KSWS were with the District Mufti of Mirpur, Hafiz Nazir Ahmed, and the visit to the Carlisle Business Centre earlier this month was supported by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office.

There are many people from Mirpur now based in the Bradford district and the conference was an attempt to reach their community leaders.

Mr Nazir said that there was no concept of forced marriage in Islam. “Islam does not allow forced marriage and it is a crime, not a marriage, and I convey this message to people through my lectures,” he said.

“I have come to the UK to tell the people what is the right concept of Islam and marriage.

“There are three kinds of marriage. One of them is arranged marriage, the second is the love marriage and the third is forced marriage.

“If children refuse to take part in a marriage, they should not be pressured and the marriage should be stopped.”

The FMU defines forced marriage as when an individual is coerced into marrying someone against their will. They may also be threatened physically or emotionally blackmailed.

It is not the same as an arranged marriage where you have a choice whether to accept the arrangement or not.

The tradition of arranged marriages, according to the FMU, has operated successfully within many communities for a long time.

Pervez Akhtar, chief patron of the KSWS, said that of all the reported forced marriage cases, ten per cent involved men.

He added: “It takes guts to challenge your parents and cultural norms, but we are promoting the very clear message that forced marriage is no marriage.

“I would like to see clear guidelines on this given to parents and children.

“Anyone who feels forced into this situation should contact the Foreign Office. They will take care of it and will extract them if necessary.

“But your rights and benefits in the UK are vitally reduced when you get to Pakistan.

“Forced marriage is a worldwide phenomenon and people do it to improve other people’s status or income.

“We encourage the youth to be confident that Sharia and Islamic Law is behind you on this and does not support forced marriage.”

Mr Akhtar is now based in the region and hopes to set up outreach centres to educate those who may be vulnerable to outside pressures.

Anyone who feels they may be forced into a marriage during a trip overseas can call the FMU on 0207 008 0151.

The unit warns that once people are overseas, they may feel isolated, face emotional pressure, be watched all the time, have no money, not have their passport or ticket and be a long way from a telephone.

“If you still decide to go,” they say, “make sure you leave the following information with a trusted friend: Full address and telephone number of where you are going to stay abroad, your passport details and all your flight details there and back.

“Find out where your nearest embassy is and keep the phone number with you at all times.”

Those forced into a marriage overseas, who don’t want their spouse to get a visa to come to the UK, can seek help from the FMU.

The organisation has compiled a Survivor’s Handbook, providing advice for those who want to leave, on real issues such as benefits, where to go and who to turn to.

For more information on forced marriages and for help or advice, visit fco.gov.uk.

The Sodasa Project also provides information and support for women who experience domestic violence on (01274) 577571.

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