LONDON, June 15 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - The assignment set by her English teacher was to write about the worst day of her life, so 15-year-old Aisha Elahi did just that.
She wrote about being pinned down and raped by a man she had secretly started seeing. At 24, he drove a flashy red car and came from the same conservative, Asian Muslim community in which Elahi was raised in the north of England.
When her parents were called to the school and told of the attack, Elahi’s mother sobbed but her father was silent, his eyes fixed to the floor.
“We went home and no one spoke about it. No one said anything or talked about going to the police,” Elahi recalls, more than a decade later.
Soon after, Elahi left for a family holiday in her parents’ native India. In her dusty, ancestral village, Elahi was told she was to marry her cousin — an arrangement the family deemed necessary to protect her reputation, and their honour.
Thousands of British girls like Elahi are at risk of being forced into marriage every year by their parents and extended family, who use emotional blackmail, beatings and threats of sexual violence against them, campaigners say.
Cousins are often chosen to be their husbands to ensure assets remain in the family, and to preserve caste, culture and religion. Marriages also occur to enable spouses from Pakistan, India or Bangladesh among others to be brought to Britain.
Elahi begged her father to change his mind.
Perched at his feet, she pleaded with him again and again, but the ceremony went ahead.
“I’ve never seen the video of the wedding. I couldn’t bear to watch it. I couldn’t bear seeing myself caked in make-up with all this jewellery heaped on me,” said Elahi, a smartly-dressed professional.
The battle to end forced marriage, which Prime Minister David Cameron has called “little more than slavery”, received a boost last week when a 34-year-old man became the first person in Britain to be jailed for the practice since it became a criminal offence on June 16, 2014.
The man, who admitted forcing a 25-year-old woman to marry him, was sentenced to 16 years in prison for charges also including rape, bigamy and voyeurism.
“We are encouraged by this first conviction and hope that the new law is also having a deterrent effect,” said Karen Bradley, minister for preventing abuse and exploitation.
“However, we know legislation alone is not enough and we remain focused on prevention, support, and protection for victims and those at risk of becoming victims.”
Elahi would agree.
Like many others, she believes the law does not solve the problem that many victims do not come forward because they do not want their parents put on trial or imprisoned.
“I think it speaks volumes that we have had not a single prosecution of a ‘classic’ forced marriage, one which is organised by parents and family members,” Elahi said, commenting on last week’s case.
However, those who campaigned for the law say such legislation is crucial — among them Jasvinder Sanghera, who escaped a forced marriage as a teenager before setting up Karma Nirvana, a charity helping other survivors.
“Law isn’t just about criminal convictions, it’s about changing societal attitudes,” said Sanghera, noting that domestic violence was once just as hidden as forced marriage, before media campaigns put it on the national agenda.
“I couldn’t say to my mother at the age of 14, when it was happening to me, ‘You can’t do this to me, it’s against the law’. But today, victims can own it as a crime,” Sanghera told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
She said since forced marriage was made illegal, more police forces and schools across the country had sought training from Karma Nirvana on how to deal with the problem — proof the law was having an impact.
Besides Britain, only a handful of countries have criminalised forced marriage — Germany, Austria, Belgium, Cyprus, Denmark and Australia among them.
Britain’s move was seen as a breakthrough by activists who complained that the fear of being branded racist meant police officers, social workers and teachers had treated forced marriage as a cultural matter rather than abuse.
Last year, the interior ministry’s Forced Marriage Unit advised or provided support in 1,267 potential cases of forced marriage — in which one in five victims were 17 or younger.
Most cases had links with Pakistan, India and Bangladesh, others with Afghanistan, Somalia, Turkey, Iraq, Sri Lanka and Iran.
Experts say the real number of victims is likely to be much higher because many young women do not report the crime out of fear or guilt. Others simply disappear abroad.
On her wedding night, Elahi had to be physically pushed by her parents over the threshold of her new husband’s house.
“His mum used to lock the metal door from the outside. For the first two or three nights, he’d talk to me but eventually he gave up being nice,” she said.
After a while, Elahi’s family returned to Britain, abandoning her to a life of cooking and cleaning for her husband and in-laws.
“Never mind the rape, the beatings, the forced marriage — what really gets to me is how they left me, that they got on that plane,” she said, still in disbelief.
Now in her early thirties, Elahi has written “Shackled Sisters”, a collection of stories about forced marriage involving Asian women.
It depicts girls who are punished for exercising the freedoms that most take for granted in Britain, and how whole communities are complicit in their abuse.
Elahi, a warm, spirited woman, eventually escaped India and returned to Britain where she went back to school, found a part-time job, made English friends and broke from her family.
Despite what they put her through, Elahi said she could never have incriminated her parents. She could not live with herself if she had.
“As an emancipated female, who is well-educated, if I wouldn’t prosecute my family, what chance does a girl have who’s been hidden from the Western world?” Elahi said. (Reporting by Katie Nguyen, Editing by Emma Batha; Please credit Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women’s rights, corruption and climate change. Visit www.trust.org)