For officials from the High Commission in Islamabad, rescuing forced marriage victims is a tough front line job.
Their latest case takes them on a tortuous five hour car journey into the hills of Kashmir. They have little to go on, except a brief call from a distressed teenager from the Midlands.
Her mobile phone battery low. She resorted to a few text messages to communicate where she was being held captive.
In the first nine months of 2008, the Foreign Office’s Forced Marriage Unit handled more than 1,300 cases – about half of these involving minors.
The BBC obtained exclusive access to the Pakistani branch of the operation which rescues British nationals from such forced marriages.
Alia, not her real name, was forced by her parents to marry her 15-year-old Pakistani cousin.
She’s been trapped with her in-laws for eight months with no means of escape. There’s no public transport in this remote part of the country.
The consular officials, backed up by a police escort, eventually find the house and ask to speak to Alia alone.
She tells them she wants to leave her in-laws’ house straight away. The prime mover in this rescue strategy is Albert David, a Pakistani working at the High Commission.
He has the delicate and sometimes dangerous job of breaking the news to the father-in-law.
He comes back with the message that Alia’s family wants to speak to her. She refuses, too intimidated to stand up to them in person.
Albert tells her: “We will go out this door with whatever possessions you’ve got. The car is waiting outside, so you don’t have to face them.”
Alia agrees immediately and they rush her out the back door into the consular car. So far, there’s been no sign of her husband, but then he too is only a teenager.
Most cases of forced marriage involve British women of South East Asian origin. Often, their families’ motivation is to help poor relatives obtain a spousal visa so they can live in the UK.
The British government estimates that two-thirds of forced marriages of British nationals are linked to Pakistan, and many of them involve poor families in remote rural areas.
Walking out of her marriage has been a momentous step for Alia – but she knows defying her parents’ wishes will be seen as betrayal of the family, especially as the marriage was her grandmother’s dying wish.
Every day, Albert David sees the price the women he rescues have to pay.
“This is a very big step for a young person. They know by doing this they are cutting themselves off from the family and they are going into a very uncertain future,” he says.
In rural Pakistan, centuries of custom dictate that preserving the clan through marriage is more important than individual happiness.
But forced marriage increasingly back-fires, causing women like Alia to run away, leading to deep rifts in the family.
After her rescue, Alia is taken to a safe house in Islamabad, where she can reflect and receive counselling for a few days.
Psychologist, Uzma Iram, explains to her how cultural pressures can distort parental love.
“Your father definitely loves you, but he’s so bound in the clan system he doesn’t know what to do,” she tells Alia.
Alia is now back in the UK, but her father won’t speak to her. She is currently seeking a divorce.
Last year, the High Commission Assistance Unit in Islamabad dealt with 131 cases of forced marriage, up from 85 the previous year.
It’s often distressing work, especially when violence is involved.
Vice Consul Theepan Selvaratnam describes another woman he’s just visited, a woman who we’ll name Rubina.
“She’s in a terrible state. She had injuries on her arms and neck. She said she’d been beaten, pushed against a wall, grabbed by the throat.
“Initially, she wanted to come with us. Then she spoke to her husband and decided to stay.”
In the car on the way back to Islamabad, he and Albert discuss whether she decided to stay under duress.
“I think she was under their influence and felt threatened. She was worried about her mum and her sister,” Albert says.
“If she leaves, what will happen to them?” he asks.
Three days later, Rubina’s family allow her to visit the High Commission and speak to consular officials alone.
She is shocked at how hard it is, even with her British education, to stand up for herself against her husband.
“I’ve never seen anyone with a temper like this,” she tells the staff.
“You think because you’re a British girl you can stand up for yourself, but it’s so difficult. You feel so lonely.
“There never used to be a day I didn’t go out with my friends. But here your husband is supposed to be your everything.”
Albert and Teepan talk to Rubina about her experience of forced marriage
The officials tell her she never need see him again. But Rubina hesitates.
“I can’t do it, I know I can’t. Parents feel that family is respect – and the honour of the family is in the hands of a daughter,” she says.
Rubina just couldn’t accept the lifeline being offered. She’s now pregnant with her husband’s child and will probably stay in the marriage.
Albert David worries about the dangers to women – those who stay with abusive husbands, or those who do manage to escape but are then punished by their families.
“Saving the honour of the family is the big thing over here. We helped a girl back to the UK. The family brought her back to Pakistan, where she was killed – just because she had ‘dishonoured’.”
The Forced Marriage Act in the UK now gives British courts the power to issue protection orders that can stop intimidation or violence and prevent someone from having to go abroad.
But even with better laws, it takes enormous courage to make that first phone call, and there will be thousands who never even dare to cry for help.
Source: BBC 1 December 2008