Hundreds of Calderdale children are at risk of being taken abroad and forced to wed this summer, warns the female force behind the introduction of legislation making it a criminal offence to coerce people into marriage.
Jasvinder Sanghera CBE, founder of Karma Nirvana charity - supporting victims of forced marriage and honour based abuse - warned Calderdale schools and the local authority not to wait until the start of the new academic year in September to see which children may be missing but to spot the warning signs now.
In June, a new law came into force in England and Wales making forced marriages in Britain, and forced marriages of UK nationals abroad, a criminal offence with parents who force children into marriage punishable by up to seven years imprisonment.
Karma Nirvana, based in Leeds and operating in Calderdale, along with other local support services, councillors and government ministers, say the new legislation will give victims confidence to come forward and will protect thousands of girls and women, as well as males, from being forced into marriage against their will.
The protective legislation is something Jasvinder has campaigned for tirelessly, for over a decade, after fleeing from her Derbyshire family home in 1980, aged just 15, when her Indian parents told her she would have to marry the man she’d been promised to from the age of eight.
At the age of 22, Jasvinder was struck by further tragedy when her 25-year-old sister, Robina, committed suicide by setting herself alight due to the pressure and fear her family and community bestowed upon her. Jasvinder then launched the Karma Nirvana charity from her living room in 1993, campaigning for the rights and safety of girls just like her sister.
Since then the charity has helped thousands of women subjected to forced marriage.
But, warns the founder of Karma Nirvana, school children are at risk of being taken to Pakistan this summer to marry men and women.
According to children’s charity NSPCC, calls to its ChildLine from children concerned about being forced into marriage have trebled in the last three years. The national charity reported that these children are frightened, depressed and, in some cases, suicidal.
“Schools are the heart of the community, they have a duty to safeguard these children who have British rights.
“Often the authorities don’t want to offend communities for fear of being called racist or because they believe it’s a part of the religion when it isn’t. These children deserve the same levels of protection as their white British counterparts.
“The legislation gives girls, in the same situation I was, an official avenue to turn to where police and authorities can register this as a crime - which must be taken seriously.
“Schools need to start addressing the issue,” said Jasvinder, who went unnoticed when she went missing from school for nine months in the 1980s.
“Child victims often have many perpetrators in families and communities - their objective is to stop a child from reporting the abuse, a lot of self-policing against what is considered ‘dishonour’ is going on in areas like Calderdale,” she said.
Crossley Heath School, Halifax, has hosted Karma Nirvana workshops and displays posters, promoting the charity’s confidential helpline number, around the school.
English teacher Joanne Walsh, said: “Karma Nirvana workshops are useful for our students.
“We have had some experience of this topic in our school, and although such instances are rare, we feel it useful for the charity to provide our students with information which might not only be pertinent to themselves, but also their friends.”
Calderdale Council works with Calderdale Council of Mosques, Calderdale Police, White Ribbon Campaign and Karma Nirvana to help tackle forced marriage and support victims and potential victims.
Detective Inspector for Calderdale Safeguarding Unit, Sharon Hewitt, said: “Our unit has clear guidance on how to deal with forced marriage which is punishable by up to seven years imprisonment or up to five years for breach of a civil protection order.
“We work closely with support agencies such as Karma Nirvana and women’s refuges as well as overseas agencies.
“At the moment, we deal with about two cases a month but figures may rise with the new legislation and through media publicity and public awareness.
“Our team protects people’s confidentiality and we take all matters seriously.”
Calderdale Council’s Cabinet member for communities, coun Steve Sweeney, said: “Our message on forced marriage is clear - it will not be tolerated.
“We welcome the new law; making forced marriage a criminal offence. We urge anyone at risk of or being forced to marry to come forward and seek support - no one should suffer in silence.”
Calderdale Sector Support has promoted awareness on the issue and hosted an ‘arranged and forced marriages’ information event at Halifax’s Queens Road Neighbourhood Centre with Calderdale Council of Mosques, Karma Nirvana, White Ribbon Campaign and Halifax Community Initiative giving presentations on service information. Information on the new offence was outlined to delegates from local places of worship, secondary schools and practitioners.
Communications officer for the Council of Mosques, Councillor Faisal Shoukat, said: “The Calderdale Council of Mosques represent all the mosques in the borough. All the imams, teachers and trustees have taken part in signposting and awareness training in line with safeguarding policies.” Coun Shoukat said the Council of Mosques works in partnership to liaise with schools to ensure all members of mosque congregations are protected.
He said: “The Muslim community in Calderdale is well integrated and we have found that in such communities such occurrences are very rare. There is no Islamic justification for forced marriage and any such marriage is considered sinful and void.”
After advocating for legal rights for those forced into marriage for the past 13 years, Ms Sanghera said June 16 was a historic day for thousands of British-born children from Asian families.
But, she warns: “The law is a small part of the big picture - it’s a significant day but this is where the work starts.”
Calderdale schools and organisations can book free informative workshops through Karma Nirvana and people affected by forced marriage can call the charities helpline anonymously on 0800 599 9247.
Read special interview with Amina, who escaped being forced into marriage: Amina’s story