Forced marriages going ‘unchallenged’ over fears of being branded racist

Forced marriages are going unchallenged because professionals fear being branded “racist”, a campaigner has warned.

Jasvinder Sanghera, founder of the charity Karma Nirvana which supports people at risk of forced marriage, said some professionals “shrug off” the practice as a “cultural problem”.

Speaking ahead of a talk she gave at Hampstead’s Tavistock mental health centre last Thursday (June, 28) she said: “Some professionals shrug off the problem of forced marriage as a cultural problem.

“Other professionals who call our helpline say they are frightened to intervene in case they are termed racist. Support for victims receive is extremely patchy.

“Many South Asian girls are going missing without protection. We are not getting the same level of protection as our white counterparts. This has to change.”

Dressing in modern or revealing clothes, holding hands with a boy, or even using social networking site Facebook can be enough for some families to brand teenage girls “dishonourable”, she added.

The coalition government has brought in new legislation to criminalise forced marriage, leaving parents who coerce their children into wedding facing prison.

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But inertia still riddles schools and social services, Mrs Sanghera warned, leaving many young women in danger of the illicit practice, particularly over the long summer holidays.

This cycle of abuse is something Mrs Sanghera knows a lot about.

Born in Derby to Indian Sikh parents, she watched her two older sisters make the fateful trip to the Punjab to marry men they were bequeathed to as children, but had never before met. They were just 15.

“I was the next in line,” she recalled.

“When I was 14 I was presented with a photograph of a man I was promised to when I was eight.

“I was taken out of school when I was 15 when I protested that I was not marrying this stranger. They kept me locked up in my own home. I had to knock on my bedroom door to go to the toilet.”

She ran away at 16 and had to watch at a distance when her sister Robina, fell into a deep depression that led her to set herself on fire as her abusive marriage took its toll.

Many women forced into marriage struggle with their mental health.

Dr Reenee Singh, a consultant systemic psychotherapist at the Tavistock, which runs community outreach programmes in North and South Camden, has worked with a number of women forced into marriage.

She said: “Unfortunately we do meet people where there are difficulties. It may be that the parents have migrated and they want to keep hold of a lot of their traditions.

“They find a lot of comfort in doing that and they don’t realise that things have moved on.”