LONDON, May 20 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - British charities working to end forced marriage have seen a spike in calls for help from girls terrified their parents will marry them off as soon as lockdown lifts.
“We expect forced marriages will escalate after the lockdown,” said Natasha Rattu, chief executive of Karma Nirvana which campaigns against forced marriage.
“We’re hearing that these marriages are being planned.”
Karma Nirvana said it had seen a 150% increase in teenagers calling about forced marriage since lockdown began on March 23 to curb the spread of the coronavirus.
The charity has since helped 43 people at risk, including seven children, the youngest aged eight. Some parents were planning to send their daughters abroad for marriage.
Forced marriages in Britain are commonly associated with families from South Asian and Middle Eastern backgrounds. They are illegal even if carried out overseas.
The government’s Forced Marriage Unit dealt with a record 1,764 cases relating to a possible forced marriage in 2018, but campaigners say no one knows the true figure.
Charities told the Thomson Reuters Foundation that school closures and the cancellation of national exams due to the pandemic were spurring parents to start planning weddings.
The lockdown also meant girls had fewer options to seek help and were more invisible to the authorities.
Freedom Charity, which works to prevent forced marriage, estimated a 50% jump in requests for help.
“We’re mostly being contacted by teenagers. They’re very scared about being forced into marriage when people are allowed to travel again,” said founder Aneeta Prem.
Prem said job losses caused by the lockdown may also be motivating some parents to arrange marriages.
A 16-year-old told the charity her family wanted to pack her off to Pakistan to wed.
“The father had lost his income and said she was a burden on the family,” Prem added. “Her brother said as she no longer had exams there was no reason to keep her.”
An 18-year-old, whose parents came to Britain from Bangladesh, had begged a shopkeeper for help after learning she was to be married off now that her exams were cancelled.
“She was hysterical. Normally she would have been able to talk to someone at school,” Prem said.
IKWRO, a charity helping women from Iranian, Kurdish and Afghan backgrounds, said cases had more than doubled in the lockdown. The girls it helps range from aged 15 to 17.
“This situation gives more opportunities to families to force their children into marriage. We think there will be a rise as lockdown eases,” said executive director Diana Nammi.
"It's very difficult for young people to contact police, especially when schools are closed." (Reporting by Emma Batha @emmabatha; Editing by Lyndsay Griffiths. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, which covers the lives of people around the world who struggle to live freely or fairly. Visit news.trust.org)