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Hidden world of forced marriage

9 February 09 13:05 GMT

By Ruth Clegg
BBC News

A helpline set up in the North East to help women who are forced into marriage has been so successful it is being rolled out to other parts of the country.

"I had to watch my sisters forced into marriage with a man they they had only seen in a photograph sent from India.

"When I told my parents that I didn't want to endure that kind of life I was told that my father would have a heart attack and my mother would get cancer - and it would be my fault."

Jasvinder Sanghera relives the ordeal she suffered as a child, nearly forced into marriage with a man she had never met before.

She was just 14 when she ran away to Newcastle.

She escaped from her family's home in Derby after months of being locked in her bedroom as her parents tried to force her into the marriage.

After one of her sisters died after setting herself on fire so she did not have to go through a forced marriage, Ms Sanghera set up Karma Nirvana.

It is a support group for women who need to escape from cultural pressures and threats of attack if they do not obey their family's desires.

This kind of abuse is hidden by thousands of families across the UK.

In November 2007, Cleveland Police was the first force in the country to set up the Choice helpline, a service dedicated to helping women in a situation similar to that of Jasvinder.

Many had been threatened and suffered attacks ranging from assaults, attempted murder and abduction.

Since then more than 300 people have called the helpline for advice and support.

Out of these cases, 60 have led to police intervention.

Insp Helen Eustace, who set up the service, is surprised at the number of people - including men, women and children from all backgrounds and ethnicities - who have contacted the service.

She said: "I first set it up because I had been dealing with two particularly harrowing cases, I was new to the subject so I did some research and it just took off from there.

"We didn't realise that Cleveland had a problem because it has been so under-reported, but our staff have been inundated with callers.

"We are now having other forces expressing an interest, and it has been rolled out to Northumberland, Durham and Cambridge."

She said they had received calls from victims as well as professionals and teachers who have noticed a child being removed from school suddenly and without reason.

"Tackling domestic violence in ethnic minorities is difficult because we are not dealing with just one person, there tends to be a whole family involved and it is difficult to know who we can trust."

Men also ring for advice and support. Often, they are the boyfriend of a woman whose family object to the match, a man who is being forced into marriage or a homosexual who is too scared to tell his family.

Insp Eustace added: "We keep all details in the strictest of confidence, our officers are specially trained and we can meet people in a mutual, safe place.

"In April we will be employing an extra 12 call-handlers as we make the helpline more accessible."

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