Page last updated at 14:48 GMT, Monday, 15 December 2008

The fight against forced marriage

NHS doctor Humayra Abedin, who says she has been held captive by her parents ahead of a forced marriage, is returning to the UK. A Bangladesh court's decision to order her release has been hailed as a "landmark" ruling by her lawyers.

Dr Humayra Abedin
Dr Abedin came to Britain in September 2002

But how significant is the case of the 33-year-old trainee GP to the battle against forced marriages in Britain?

For campaigners, the story of Dr Abedin's alleged capture is disappointingly familiar.

She had travelled to Dhaka in August after hearing her mother was sick, but later sent messages to friends in the UK saying she was being held against her will and was being forced to marry.

The UK's Forced Marriage Unit dealt with more than 1,300 similar cases during the first three quarters of this year - an increase of 79% on 2007. Most involved families from Pakistan, India and Bangladesh.

But campaigners and the government say forced marriage remains significantly under-reported and the problem is more widespread than the figures suggest.

In the most serious cases kidnapping and sexual, physical and mental abuse are involved. In some instances victims have even been murdered.


What it does is emphasise for victims that there is relief there for them and they must come forward
Anne-Marie Hutchinson
Lawyer

However, Dr Abedin's solicitor, Anne-Marie Hutchinson, believes her client's case has made a significant contribution to the fight against forced marriages in Britain for two reasons.

Firstly, because the judge in Bangladesh was prepared to go public and emphasise the "civil wrong" which had been done against her client, and secondly, because a British High Court order served under the new Forced Marriage Act was mentioned at the Dhaka hearing.

Although the UK injunction against Dr Abedin's family had no "directing enforceability" in Bangladesh, "judicial note had been taken of its existence", Ms Hutchinson says.

"What was heartening was to hear what was said in the Bangladesh court by the Supreme Court judge, who echoed what one would anticipate what a High Court judge would say here about the breach of human rights and the inappropriate actions of her parents," she continues.

"What it does is emphasise for victims that there is relief there for them and they must come forward."

'Positive messages'

Dr Ghayasuddin Siddiqui, of the Muslim Parliament of Great Britain, also believes the court order demanding Dr Abedin's release is significant in tackling the culture behind forced marriages.

Forced Marriage Unit poster
A special government unit tackles the issue of forced marriages

Importantly, it is the first time the Forced Marriages Act - introduced in November - has been used in support of someone who is not a British national, he says.

"It will send out very positive messages to all young people who are taken for a variety of reasons to Pakistan, India and Bangladesh. They have hope that they will be released even if they are not nationals of this country.

"It also sends a positive message to parents that they have limits to their rights. Young people's lives must dominate all other rights."

Sophiya (not her real name), who was taken by her family to Pakistan at the age of 20 and forced to marry, believes the outcome of the Dr Abedin's case was "exactly what it should have been".

But, she says, unlike Dr Abedin who had friends and colleagues to turn to, she, like many other women, was so "socially dependent " on her family she did not know where to turn.

National campaign 'needed'

It is these isolated women as well as those from poorer backgrounds that need to be reached, says Jasvinder Sanghera, of campaign group Karma Nirvana.

Although the latest ruling is welcome and she hopes it will encourage more victims to come forward, more still needs to be done to inform communities across the social divide.

"What we need to do is get information to victims and potential victims that this piece of legislation exists," she says.

Forced marriage affects women from all backgrounds and all ages, she says, with most between the ages of 15 and 39.

Ms Sanghera wants to see lessons on forced marriage legislation taught in schools and a national campaign launched on a similar scale to that used against drink driving.

She also wants the practice of forcing someone to marry to be made a specific criminal offence.

She adds: "These cases are on the increase in the UK. Hundreds of people are currently at potential risk and many more are in these countries being held."

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SEE ALSO
Missing GP 'held' in Bangladesh
09 Dec 08 |  London

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