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'Muslim girls in UK forcibly wedded in teens'

By Shyam Bhatia in London
January 27, 2004 19:05 IST
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Teenage Muslim girls in the United Kingdom are being abducted in droves from their homes and sent to Pakistan for forced marriages, a left wing member of parliament has alleged.

"I've been told 300 girls disappear every year from schools in the Bradford district. They are pressured by their parents to marry in Pakistan. They don't really have a choice. They often fear defying their families and dare not say no," says Labour MP Ann Cryer, who represents the Keighley constituency.

She wants the practice to be stopped immediately. Bradford is home to thousands of families who trace their origins to Bangladesh and the Mirpur district of Pakistan-occupied Kashmir.

Some parents reportedly sent their daughters to Pakistan at a young age to 'protect' them from the corrupting influences of Western culture. In such cases, the girls stay with relatives until they are married off and return home to the UK, usually at the age of 18, with dimmed possibilities of completing their education.

They seek out unskilled jobs paying around £400-450 per month and sponsor visa applications for their newly married husbands to join them in the UK.

At the same time, she claims, it is a lucrative business with some families receiving as much as £10,000 in exchange for each daughter that is married off.

Recently back from a trip to Pakistan along with fellow MP Terry Rooney, who represents the Bradford North constituency, she has disclosed her findings in letters to UK Home Secretary David Blunkett, Solicitor General Harriet Harman and Children's Minister Margaret Hodge.

On an average, they claim, at least two girls contact them every week expressing fears about being taken out of the UK to be forcibly married.

They cite the case of a girl who was sent to Bangladesh at the age of 12 and was married off at the age of 14. She returned to the UK at the age of 16 with a kid in tow.

"More and more girls born in Bradford are reaching the age when they are seen as a highly-prized commodity. It is a scandal.

"Part of the tragedy is that it is self-defeating for the Asian community. If you look at it simply from the point of view of social and economic achievement, this practice is holding them back.

"By abandoning their daughters' education, they are destroying the chance of young Asian girls going to college and university and getting good jobs where they can make a difference," says Cryer.

Existing legislation against false imprisonment, threats, harassment or assault can be used to prevent forced marriages, but Cryer thinks new laws are needed.

"A new law may not stop the problem but it is worth trying," she says. "Parents will also realise what they are doing is not only un-Islamic but against the law of the country."

She is supported by the president of the Bradford Council of Mosques, Sher Azam, who says forced marriages are illegal in India and Pakistan.

"Choosing who you marry is a basic human right of an individual, male or female.

"Children should be allowed to enjoy their childhood. If there are so many leaving their schools it is very sad and Mrs Cryer is doing the right thing. No faith or religion condones it and it must be stopped."

In London, Home Office officials say they are trying to raise awareness about forced marriages with better use of existing laws to stop the practice. "We are determined to put an end to it," one official said.
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Shyam Bhatia in London