As a survivor of forced marriage, I welcomed the news this month from the British prime minister that forcing girls and women to wed will become a criminal offense. Now British women and girls, who are often made to feel they are betraying their families by saying no to marriage, can say they are protected by law. I myself was not able to say to my mother, “Forcing me to marry is against the law.”
Girls as young as 5 years old have been forced into marriage around the United Kingdom, and around the world. Victims are often tricked into marriage or physically coerced. When they submit, the abuse is horrific. Robbed of their childhood and often the right to an education, many are raped, beaten, and held prisoner in their own home. The damage is made worse by the fact that their own family is behind this abuse.
The British government is following in the steps of Norway, Denmark, Germany, Austria, Malta, Belgium, and Cyprus in criminalizing forced marriage. In many of these countries, the government has since noted a 50 percent increase in reporting of cases.
The cost of saying no to a forced marriage is extreme—it can mean the loss of your family, forever. I know this well because I said no myself, as a British girl at the tender age of 14. I was the sixth of seven daughters in a conservative Sikh family in the English industrial city of Derby. One by one, my sisters had been pulled out of school and sent to India to marry strangers. My mother locked me in my room for weeks until I agreed to submit. I finally said yes, to try to gain my freedom. When my parents let me visit a friend, I ran away.
A few years later, one of my older sisters, Robina, who had been forced to wed an abusive man, set herself on fire to escape. She died with burns on more than 90 percent of her body. After that tragedy, I started my charity, Karma Nirvana to save other women and girls from such a fate.
My family disowned me due to my refusal to wed. For 30 years, I have stood by my decision. Last week, I watched my daughter Natasha marry the man she loves—the way it should be—and the pain of my family’s absence became insignificant. This wedding day arrived due to my decision as a teenager, which subsequently gave my children the right to choose. They will never inherit my family’s past legacy of abuse. This is a message that must be echoed to save future generations.
The British prime minister is right to refer to forced marriage as “little short of slavery.” As he said, “For too long we have thought, Well, it’s a cultural practice and we have to run with it.” This message will hopefully strike the consciences of all those who turn a blind eye. If a country believes that forced marriage is an evil practice, then it will act to stamp it out. It is important to create a cultural shift whereby officials are not so afraid of being perceived as racist or politically incorrect that they turn a blind eye to clear evidence.
The British government’s Forced Marriage Unit dealt with 8,000 cases last year. Karma Nirvana receives more than 500 calls a month on its help line from British-born subjects. Increasingly, we are responding to victims across America. I am pleased to announce our work in partnership with two human-rights groups there: the AHA Foundation and the Polaris Project. Together, we will be launching the first national forced-marriage hotline in the U.S. The hotline is expected to launch in October of this year, and we will jointly be hosting events to raise awareness and to achieve Karma Nirvana’s mission: to increase reporting of cases, reduce isolation, and save lives.
Some argue that making forced marriage a criminal offense will drive the practice underground. We in Britain acknowledge that we are dealing with the tip of the iceberg, rescuing just a few of the many victims; beneath the iceberg, there are many thousands we have yet to reach. At least we are moving in the right direction. And victims will never be forced to take their families to court. What this law has given us is the right to choose, so that we may say with conviction that forced marriage is a crime.
We have a moral and social duty to bring these issues above ground. It is a sad fact that many people fear a cultural backlash. I would like to point out that being accepting of another culture does not mean accepting abuse. Forced marriage is not supported by religion or tradition; if we make excuses, then we sadly become part of the problem. To this regard, the words of Gandhi come to mind when he said, “We will drown in a sea of oppression in the name of tradition.”
To learn more about women and girls around the globe, visit our Women in the World Foundation.