Jasvinder Sanghera fled her home at 15 when her parents, Indian immigrants who had settled in Britain, tried to force her in 1975 into an arranged marriage.
"My parents told me, 'You either marry who we say or you are dead in our eyes,'" says Sanghera. Now shunned by her family, she regularly receives death threats from her sisters, aunts, cousins and extended family.
Sanghera is one of thousands of British women who have tried, and failed, to reconcile Western standards with family loyalties. Estranged from her family for over two decades, she now heads Karma Nirvana, a women's refuge in Derby, a city of 220,000 that has a large South Asian immigrant community.
"I have been called an imposter for speaking against my community," Sanghera says, "but I am not going to stop."
The British government is now considering whether to punish families for forcing arranged marriages. On Sept. 5, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and the Home Office jointly launched a three-month consultation to decide whether to introduce a specific criminal offense into law.
The extent of the problem is still unknown. The Foreign Office, which oversees immigration, handles 250 to 300 cases every year, but many more go unreported. Girls and boys as young as 13 are kidnapped and imprisoned, raped, assaulted and, in some cases, murdered to save the family honor, although the government does not specifically track "honor" killings.
It is believed that most forced marriages here occur in families from India, Pakistan and Bangladesh, which make up 3.5 percent of the United Kingdom's population. Cases have also involved Middle Eastern and African families, however.
Many South Asian immigrants are committed to retaining their culture and traditions. A common belief is that marriages within the tight-knit community are for the good of the children. But the children often see it differently.
"Often young girls who show signs of wanting more independence or being interested in British men are perceived as immoral and are hurriedly forced into marriage," says Sanghera.
The Asian immigrant community here is divided over whether to criminalize the practice, despite the sometimes horrifying aspects of forced marriage.
"The women who come to us just want a safe place to go," says Shaminder Ubhi, director of Ashiana, a London-based shelter for victims of domestic violence. "What they don't want is to see their families go to jail."
Rather than spending public money to enforce legislation, Ubhi says, it should go to housing for women fleeing domestic abuse. "We receive 300 women a year seeking refuge and we have only 11 beds," she said.
Ubhi says family members can already be prosecuted under existing laws, including those barring kidnapping, assault, sexual offenses and false imprisonment. "There's a real possibility that forced marriages may go underground and that parents may take their children abroad and keep them there until they are married."
Some survivors of forced marriages, however, argue that the government needs to take a clear stand.
"Forced marriages have already gone underground," says Sanghera, with obvious frustration. "I see 14-year-old girls being raped, killed, beaten and married to men twice their age. What I don't see is anyone being held accountable. If a strong message is sent out to the community, perhaps we might deter parents."
Narina Anwar, who narrowly escaped a forced marriage, wishes the government would stamp out the practice. "If forced marriage was recognized as against the law it would give people like myself ammunition to stand against it," she says.
When she was 21, Anwar and her two sisters were taken to Pakistan by their parents to visit their grandmother and then informed that they were to be married. They were guarded day and night for five months and told they would be shot if they escaped. Eventually they fled to the British High Commission, which brought them back to the United Kingdom. They lived in a women's shelter for six months, until they were given government housing. They contacted their parents four months later and reconciled with them.
Government Takes Action
The British government--after years of tolerating the practice in the name of cultural sensitivity--is now taking action.
"This is a problem that cuts across all sectors of public life: education, health and social services," says Vinay Talwar, head of the Forced Marriage Unit, which the Foreign Office set up in January 2005.
The unit regularly rescues and repatriates victims taken overseas to be married. It also conducts publicity campaigns in schools and community centers, and through videos and Web sites.
In March 2004, the government introduced guidelines for responding to forced marriage for police, teachers and social service workers, all of whom are trained to spot victims in distress. Officials are advised to treat any information disclosed to them as confidential and look at mediation as potentially dangerous. Victims are not to be sent back to their families to work out issues informally.
In practice, however, critics say authorities often err on the side of political correctness.
Part of the problem is confusion among British authorities, some of whom are uncertain about the difference between arranged marriages--which are traditional and widespread among South Asians but involve a degree of choice--and forced marriage, in which partners have no say in whom or when they marry.
"Social services often do not intervene because they are scared of being called racist," says Sanghera. "You can have guidelines, but they are of no use if no one knows how to put them into practice."
After the events of 7-7, as the subway terror attack this summer is known here, and the subsequent calls from several government officials urging greater integration of minorities into British society, any interference in social issues by the government is watched closely by the immigrant community.
British Muslims have already termed curbs on immigration that are intended to discourage forced marriages--such as a requirement that spouses of immigrants applying for entry be at least 18 years old--as discriminatory against British Asians. But Talwar feels such concerns are misguided. "Forced marriages are a human rights issue, not a cultural issue," he said. "This is not intended to target any particular community."
Anwar, a devout Muslim, says foolish notions of Islam and family honor are also used as a reason for forcing women into marriages. "We need to get across the message that forced marriage is not culture or religion but an ugly abuse hidden in a blanket of so-called family bonds. Parents need to consider what is right and wrong, and not sacrifice their children for family honor."
Sanghera, for her part, is clear about what the government should do. "I thought it was OK for my parents to be doing this to me," she says with quiet rage. "I wish I had been able to say to my parents at 14, 'You can't do this to me because it is illegal.'"