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Last Updated: Thursday, 9 December, 2004, 00:40 GMT
Marriages made in hell

By Nick Bryant
BBC South Asia correspondent, Islamabad

British officials in Islamabad have to deal with pleas for help
At an Islamabad women's refuge, with an address cloaked in secrecy and a perimeter guarded by barbed wire, 21-year-old Sharzia - whose name has been changed to protect her identity - broke down in tears as she described the horror of her forced marriage.

It was to a man she had never met, who physically and mentally abused her almost from the very outset.

On her leg is a 10-cm (4-in) scar, an indelible reminder of the day he attacked her with a broken clay pot.

In her mind are the tortuous memories of a two-year 'marriage' in which she was threatened repeatedly with death. Once, as she suffered an asthma attack, her husband even took away her inhaler.

Then, as she gasped for breath, he threatened to chop up her body and feed it to the dogs roaming outside. Having broken her body, he was trying to crush her spirit.

Self-confessedly rebellious

Born and raised in Britain, Sharzia was brought to Pakistan by her parents two years ago, mistakenly thinking she was attending a relative's wedding. But it soon became clear that she, too, was being married off.

He said to me he was going to kill, he wasn't going to bury me. He said he was going to throw my bits to the dogs
forced marriage victim

Though self-confessedly rebellious by nature - something which her father found difficult to cope with - Sharzia was willing to go though with an arranged marriage, and was therefore prepared to accept that her parents would choose her husband.

But on the night of the wedding, as the celebrations started, she started to harbour doubts.

"Just before I went on stage I was given a photo of him - and that's when I got really upset," she told me.

"He wasn't my age, he was a lot, lot older and I didn't want to marry him. I was happy with an arranged marriage, but I didn't want to marry him."

"I started crying," she continued. "I didn't want to be there, I didn't want to get married to this man. I wanted to jump off stage and run away. But I couldn't for my father's dignity and my father's pride."

An arranged marriage had become a forced marriage.

"Within a few days, he started knocking me around," she says, "simply because I wouldn't sleep with him. He hurt my leg, bust my lip, he smashed a clay ornament into my head.

Pakistan women's' refuge
Women's refuges are at secret addresses surrounded by wire

"I really thought at this point, I wasn't going to live. He just started pulling my hair, knocking me around, throwing me around. I couldn't take it."

Despite repeated protestations, Sharzia was told she would have to remain with her husband.

One day, when she pleaded with her father as they were driving in the car, he threatened to crash the vehicle, killing them both.

"My father used to say it was my fault because I had done so many bad things in my life, made my parents so unhappy by putting them through so much grief and stress."

Court action

Last month, Sharzia was rescued by a team from the British High Commission, which managed to identify the house where she was being kept a virtual prisoner and arranged to pick her up.

She waited until all the male members of the household were asleep and then managed to escape.

This year alone the British High Commission in Islamabad has dealt with almost 100 cases of forced marriage - a 20% increase over 2003. The majority involved women, but in 20 instances young men were the victims.

Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf
President Musharraf has called for women to be better protected

Often British officials manage to secure the release of victims through negotiation with the families or local authorities. When that fails, they have sometimes had to mount court action.

In many instances, British Asian families wanted to reinforce traditional regional cultural values by sending their daughters back to Pakistan to get married.

Often, though, the prime motivation is money - since Pakistani men who marry British Asian women are entitled to UK visas, the passport to better-paid work and a higher standard of living.

It is not uncommon for fathers to sell-off their daughters, such is the demand for ill-gotten visas, according to British officials working in Islamabad.

As part of an effort to help young people coerced into relationships, British ministers are currently considering whether to criminalise forced marriages.

Other plans include raising the minimum age at which a foreigner can enter the UK as a spouse from 16 to 18.

When Sharzia packed her bag to go back to Britain, it took a matter of seconds.

She has a few clothes, a mobile phone and virtually no money. Sometime in the future, she hopes to reunite with her parents but right now she is scathing towards them because they were the authors of her grief.

"They weren't there for me," she says, sobbing. "I know their hearts are in the right place. When I needed them most, they weren't there for me."

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