Women in the World

03.08.12

When Families Turn Murderous

A riveting panel zooms in on girls who flee forced marriage—and families who want them dead as a result.
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In a dramatic opening-night panel at the Women in the World Summit Thursday, two brave women shared harrowing tales of escape—from their own families. Both women, Sabatina James and Jasvinder Sanghera, fled their families to avoid disappearing into forced marriage, and both paid a high price, becoming estranged from their families for life. But at least they are alive.

For women like Sanghera and James, with families rooted in the ancient tribal traditions of India and Pakistan, respectively, marriage is viewed as a daughter’s destiny. Girls who refuse to wed are seen by their families as rebellious and shameful—so much so, that they can be killed for such a “crime.” An estimated 5,000 women and girls around the world are murdered by their relatives each year for such disobedience, according to the United Nations.

The panel, moderated by Lesley Stahl of 60 Minutes, told the stories of the girls who fall victim to forced marriage—and the people who help them escape. Sanghera runs a group called Karma Nirvana in the U.K., where girls can call a hotline to get help. James launched a foundation in Germany called Sabatina, which acts as an underground railroad, finding girls shelter and jobs.

Men, too, mobilize to free their sisters. Chaz Akoshile, another participant on the panel, is the joint head of the government-run Forced Marriage Unit in the U.K., which helps rescue girls who are sent abroad to wed against their will. He works with Albert David, also on the panel, who is head of consular assistance at the British High Commission in Islamabad. Together, these men do something extraordinary: rescue British girls forced to wed in Pakistan—by entering private homes to get the girls out. 

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Marc Bryan-Brown

In one of the most dramatic moments of the panel, a recording was played of a British girl calling Sanghera's hotline. In a panic, the girl described how she had heard her parents speak of shipping her off to Pakistan for a forced marriage. She asked what she should do. The operator told her: Put a spoon in your underwear. When you go through airport security, the alarm will sound and you can tell the guard your story. 

It worked.