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A Spoon in Her Underwear: Escaping Forced Marriage

Simple spoon, simple strategy, simply horrible practice.

Forced marriage is a problem in Britain. That’s because the largest immigrant groups come from nations–Pakistan, Bangladesh, and India–where forced marriage is still practiced.

Though the original immigrant generations often still maintain ties with their homeland, as well as honoring traditions like “arranged” marriage, the currently marriageable generation is almost entirely a born-in-Britain cohort. These young people, male and female, are British citizens, often with markedly British beliefs, tastes, and values, and so prefer to choose their own spouses and marry when they are ready.

Tensions that arise between the generations often reach a crisis when the family arranges an unwanted marriage to a person in the home country. Threats of beatings and even murder are made if the young person will not comply.  The young Brit may be tricked, put on a plane thinking they are attending a family wedding–only to discover it’s their own wedding happening at the other end of the flight. Sometimes the reluctant bride or groom is kidnapped and taken, disoriented, to a place they don’t know how to escape, and married there.  One young man awoke to find himself shackled in a mosque.  A bride, tricked into marrying someone of her family’s choosing, was raped by her new husband the first night (these are cultures where there is no such thing as marital rape) and then, subsequently, for eight years until she could escape.

Both males and females suffer from this practice, though the outcomes for the young women are more severe.  The destination country is likely to bring a substantial reduction in rights, mobility, ability to communicate, as well as an increase in the risk of violence, for the women. The men are likely to bring the bride back to the UK, where both will be miserable, but the men do at least retain their identity and their freedom.

The British government has taken a strong stand against the practice.  Forcing someone into marriage was made a criminal offense last year;  when Cameron announced the new law, he remarked that marriage under these circumstances is “little more than slavery.” The UK Border Agency has a Forced Marriage Unit that specializes in rescuing victims, assisted by its embassies all over the world.

Hard to imagine, but passing through this portal could save a girl from a life of slavery if she is prepared and the people on the other side are ready to act.

So, there is a well-developed system in place to help victims of forced marriage, if they can only get themselves into contact with the proper authorities.  The problem is that their families often surround them in public, don’t allow them to communicate, trick them, and so on.  The challenge becomes getting the person alone, out of family earshot, and into the hands of people  who can be trusted to help.

This week, a charity, called “Karma Nirvana,” set up by a forced marriage victim whose own sister committed suicide rather than endure life with a man she had been made to marry, revealed a strategy they had been suggesting to potential victims.  And, apparently, it works!  They simply tell girls who think they may be kidnapped and taken to another country to be married, to start wearing some small metal object–a spoon is one example given–in their underwear at all times.  Then, when they go through airport security, the metal sets off the machines and they are pulled aside–away from their family–by the UK Border Agency.  And then they can ask for help and safety.

It’s a brilliant little strategy for a big, ugly problem. But there is much more to be done. Though forced marriage is a crime in Britain, prosecution is “vanishingly rare” and the phenomenon is, for obvious reasons, vastly underreported.  Showing the kind of premeditation typical of the worst criminals, parents often plan their child’s abduction during the summer–so that teachers will not be able to notice the absence and contact authorities.


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