Survivors say their plight should be viewed as modern slavery and the perpetrators prosecuted
Sunny Angel has written a book, Wings, about her experiences ‘as a sex slave and skivvy’ in a forced marriage. Photograph: Jill Mead for the Guardian
Betrayed by her own family, isolated from the outside world and raped daily by her violent husband, one desperate teenager turned to a confidential helpline.
The 17-year-old from the north of England first met her abusive partner the day before she was forced to marry the middle-aged man in Britain. She was 16 at the time, but her road to forced marriage in the UK began years earlier.
As an infant she was taken to Somalia, where she underwent the most extreme form of female genital mutilation, without any pain relief.
Disclosing her secret more than a decade later to a call handler at a forced marriage charity, she confided that on her wedding night, her “husband” cut her open with a knife so he could consummate their marriage.
The vulnerable teenager is among thousands of forced marriage victims believed to be living as modern-day slaves in Britain – and who experts say should be given increased protection through the use of human trafficking laws.
In a call last year she told the human rights charity Karma Nirvana that she was being kept in the house and beaten and raped by her husband. When she became pregnant she thought she would be left alone, but the abuse continued.
Alex, a senior call handler who spoke to the girl, said: “After the initial call she rang back to say she had undergone FGM again, this time under the instructions of her husband. She was distressed and said she would be prevented from seeing health workers during her pregnancy in case the FGM was detected.”
She was talked through her options but later made one last call to say things had got worse and she could see no way out. Alex said: “Tragically, we never heard from her again. It’s probably the most heartbreaking case I’ve dealt with.”
In 2017 the charity fielded more than 700 calls from under-18s. Among other callers was a 22-year-old British woman seeking advice after a forced marriage in Pakistan. Her parents were coercing her to work six days a week so her earnings would reach the required threshold to sponsor her foreign spouse to come to the UK.
A 55-year-old woman travelled to the UK from Pakistan on a visit visa before being forced to marry her British employer.
She said he treated her like a slave, making her work non-stop and tracking her down when she tried to flee. He extended the abuse to her daughters in Pakistan by ordering members of the community to target them. Specialist workers were able to advocate on her behalf and she has since been granted refugee status.
Ameera Jamil, a senior call handler, said: “Victims are reluctant to go to police for fear they won’t be believed. Where they come from such abuse might be tolerated or if the victim is a man they would be ridiculed.
“Last week we had a call from a man in West Yorkshire who was brought to the UK by his British spouse and was being abused by her family.”
The man, who works in catering, had said: “My wife makes me do all the housework and takes my wages. She is allowed to do as she pleases but if I want to go out I’m questioned by my in-laws.”
Jamil said: “It can take victims a long time to come forward, especially if they can’t speak English and are being closely controlled.”
One woman from Morocco, who found herself a victim of domestic servitude in Britain, only managed to escape when she came across another Arabic speaker.
“Her brother did business with the man her family forced her to wed in 2016,” said Selma Bayou of the Iranian and Kurdish Women’s Rights Organisation (IKWRO), which supported the woman.
After arriving in Britain, the 25-year-old learned the man was gay and had married her to hide his sexuality from the community. He ran a successful business and made her clean the offices in the evening after spending the day cooking and doing chores for his large family.
She reported: “They treated me like a maid. I was made to eat alone and wasn’t allowed to leave the house except to carry their shopping.”
One day while cleaning for her husband’s business, one of his clients, a Moroccan woman, asked her if she was OK and she was able to mouth “help me” in Arabic. Later the woman contacted IKWRO and she was found a place at a refuge.
Bayou said: “This was a typical case of modern-day slavery. Our advisers often see this happen to women from northern Africa, the Middle East or south-east Asia. They come here on a spousal visa but are used for domestic servitude.”
Another survivor of “‘honour’” abuse said there should be more recognition of forced marriage as a form of modern-day slavery. At 16 she was forced to marry an older Pakistani man so he could get a British visa. Back at home in the UK with her husband, she was still a young teenager when her life as a “an unpaid maid” began.
She told the Guardian: “I had to stop studying and was made to stay indoors, cutting off ties with family and friends. Even the clothes I had to wear were sent from abroad by my mother-in-law.”
Now in her thirties and a mother, she recalls how she suffered 13 years of domestic servitude and violence. She tried to flee the marriage but her family pressured her to stay.
“They said I would bring them shame. My uncle was the main perpetrator – he had great influence over the family and community,” she said.
While she is finally free from the marriage, the woman and her children still carry the physical and emotional scars. “The whole thing has impacted hugely on my children’s mental health – all of them suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder,” she said.
“When I see them in pain I’m driven to spread the truth. People need to be held to account for these horrific crimes. I don’t want anyone to suffer like I did.”
Another survivor has recently published her memoir, Wings, to raise awareness of “honour” abuse and is calling for government policy to recognise forced marriage as a form of modern slavery.
Sunny Angel, who changed her name by deed poll to protect her family’s identity, was treated “as a sex slave and skivvy” by her in-laws in Liverpool after being forced to marry a man with learning difficulties when she was 20.
Sunny Angel: ‘Forced marriage is a form of child abuse.’ Photograph: Jill Mead for the Guardian
“The family used us both because they wanted a £10,000 dowry so they could buy a Mercedes with a personalised number plate and a washing machine.” But most of all her mother-in-law wanted a grandson.
“She would stand outside the bedroom door and order her son to have sex with me. He would get violent but he didn’t know what he was doing. He was a victim too. Afterwards he would play with his toy soldiers and ask me: ‘Are you my wife?’.”
Now 39, she says she has “broken the cycle of ‘honour’ abuse” so her own daughter will never suffer as she did.
She added: “Forced marriage is not a cultural practice. It’s a form of child abuse and modern slavery and should be investigated and prosecuted as such.”