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When Payzee Mahmod was married at 16 to a man nearly twice her age she didn’t understand the words spoken during the Islamic ceremony – and nobody thought to translate them for her.
The teenager, who loved fashion and pop music, was preparing to start college. “I had just finished school and the idea of not wearing a uniform was exciting to me,” she remembers. “Instead I found myself trussed up in a wedding dress, with elaborate jewellery, feeling like a sale item at an auction.”
Naively, she had packed her Britney Spears posters to decorate her new bedroom. It was only later, alone with the groom in a hotel room, that her new reality dawned on her. He became violent when his advances made her flinch, unplugging a phone and throwing it at her face. She locked herself in the bathroom and called her parents.
“I asked, ‘When are you picking me up?’ They were angry and told me to go to sleep. They’d left me alone with a stranger and I didn’t know what he’d do.”
Last week a television drama aired about the brutal murder of Payzee’s sister, Banaz, in a so-called “honour” killing in 2006, with 4.3 million viewers tuning in to watch the first episode. The 20-year-old was targeted by her own family for leaving her abusive arranged marriage and pursuing a relationship of her choosing.
Keeley Hawes stars in ITV’s Honour as the detective brought on to the case following a string of shocking police blunders. Five men, including Banaz’s father and uncle, were later convicted of her murder.
Payzee, who was born in Kurdistan and came to the UK at the age of 11, said: “There has been a lot of interest in the drama but what has been completely overlooked is the fact that Banaz’s story started when she was forced into a child marriage to a stranger and there was no law to protect her.”
Now as a campaigner for IKWRO Women’s Rights Organisation, the 33-year-old is speaking out against child marriage in the UK. She and other survivors are supporting a 10-minute rule bill due to be presented in parliament this week. It will call for the removal of what has been called a loophole that allows 16- and 17-year-olds to marry in England and Wales with parental consent.
It comes as charities warn that coronavirus is exacerbating the hidden scandal of child marriage in the UK, after new data revealed that referrals from professionals plummeted during lockdown.
There were 2,377 contacts made about a child marriage to the UK’s national forced marriage helpline in the two-and-a-half year period to this September – with the youngest victim just seven. The majority of cases, 66%, represented those aged 16 and 17.
While reports of “honour” abuse and forced marriage surged during lockdown, the charity Karma Nirvana said that calls relating to children fell dramatically, sparking concerns that girls were struggling to seek help without support from teachers.
Referrals to the call centre dropped by 59% in the second quarter of this year compared with the same period last year. Since schools returned, however, the charity recorded 49 contacts from 7-25 September about seven children, including a girl under 10.
One distraught caller told the charity: “In the middle of a pandemic my daughter has gone to Pakistan to marry an older cousin. She should be in school but when I’ve told the police they say they are powerless to stop it because she is nearly 16.”
Another mother reported that her daughter had been groomed and was due to marry a man she had met “for just 20 minutes” after converting to another religion. She said the 16-year-old was due to marry in a ceremony in the UK.
Natasha Rattu, director at Karma Nirvana, said: “No child should marry when legally you should be in education until 18. It is a contradiction in the law and often consent is synonymous with coercion.”
There had been instances, she said, where the police had reported being powerless to respond to a child marriage. She described the case of a 15-year-old girl from an east European community who was a willing participant in a Christian ceremony in Yorkshire. Her school raised the alarm after she failed to show up.
Rattu said: “The case highlights a gap in forced marriage legislation which makes no provision for children. Because the girl was willing, police were unable to pursue the case. These marriages are flying under the radar.”
A campaign led by Girls Not Brides is supporting a proposed bill that would criminalise anyone conducting a marriage ceremony involving someone under 18, regardless of whether or not it was binding under British law.
Payzee married to please her father. But she said: “Looking back, what led to my marriage was coercion, control and emotional blackmail. Had I been given a choice I would never have said, ‘yes I want to give up my childhood to marry an old man I don’t even know’.”
She said it was vital that children were not given the responsibility of speaking out against their family. In addition to the religious ceremony, she was married at a registry office in January 2005, five months before she turned 17.
She recalled: “The man I was marrying was so old he was losing his hair. I looked like a child beside him and I cannot comprehend how the registrar did not see what was wrong with that picture in front of them.”
A “subtle institutionalised racism” also played a part in her abuse being overlooked, she said. “None of my teachers, social workers, neighbours, all those wedding shop retailers … nobody asked if I was safe. All that tells me is that it is because of how I look and where I’m from.”
She said there was a fear of offending, of cultural sensitivities, but that to explain away child marriage through religion and culture was a misnomer: “The deep-rooted issue here is patriarchy and the control of women and girls.”
It was only after Banaz’s murder that Payzee, now 18, was able to escape her own abusive marriage. Because of a strong police presence while her father was on bail awaiting his trial, he finally agreed to send for an imam.
She said: “I divorced in May 2006, the same month as my sister’s funeral.” But her husband only agreed to the divorce if she signed a statement saying she had been unfaithful.
“He needed something to tell the community. He wanted to show I was rotten and uncontrollable. Shame carries so much weight and honour is more important than your safety.”
It was not until 2007 that Payzee managed to divorce under British law.
The official figures for those marrying with parental consent are low – there were 183 in 2017, according to the latest ONS data, of which 140 were girls. “It is through those marrying in customary or religious ceremonies that we will see the real picture, but those figures are not recorded,” Payzee said.
Campaigners worry that local lockdowns and the ease with which parents can take their children out of school under the guise of Covid will make it harder for teachers to spot and report abuse – and easier for such ceremonies to go unchecked.
During lockdown Payzee was contacted by at least seven girls via social media who said they feared for their safety and were at risk of child marriage. They reached out after watching a Tedx talk by the campaigner that had been published online.
“I understand how scary it must be for these girls to even message me,” she said. “One, aged 17, said she was at risk of ‘honour’ killing. She wants to go to university but her father is trying to marry her.”
Payzee added: “There is so much the government is not picking up on. They are not realising this is still happening behind closed doors.”
Naomi Wiseman, a barrister who also works for IKWRO, said that while coronavirus was leading to increased cases of child marriage worldwide, the UK’s position was at odds with the message it was giving out abroad. Up to 2.5 million more girls around the world are at risk of being forced into child marriage over the next five years as a result of the impact of Covid-19, according to a report by Save the Children.
She said: “The UK has no legitimacy with respect to international human rights when we are allowing child marriage to take place in this country.”
She added: “Currently the onus is on the victim to say they have been forced into marriage. A ban on child marriage would take away that pressure.
“The other concern is girls who have been groomed won’t believe they have been forced. If there is no element of force, then you must examine the fact we are talking about children who do not have the capacity to consent. Put simply, it is a child protection issue.”
Previous efforts to amend the existing law have been rejected amid speculation it runs counter to the efforts of those advocating to lower the voting age to 16.
But Pauline Latham MP, who is due to introduce the bill in parliament on Tuesday, said that the current law was outdated. “In the 40s and 50s it was seen as a disgrace to have a baby out of wedlock and people were leaving school at 14 to go to work,” she said. “But life has moved on with many different opportunities available for young women.”
Unicef states that marriage before the age of 18 is a fundamental violation of human rights.
Latham said: “There are lots of things you can’t do until you are an adult like get a mortgage or a tattoo but marriage is an anomaly. In Scotland, you can get married without parental consent but I’m saying you shouldn’t be allowed to marry at all under 18, during which time children by law should be in full-time education or training.”
She worries that children, predominantly girls, are missing out on school and the chance to become financially independent because they are being coerced into early marriages.
She wants it to be made a criminal offence for anyone – priest, imam or registrar – to conduct a marriage ceremony where the participants are under 18. And she said parents need to know they could get a custodial sentence.
“Making it illegal to marry under-18s would remove ambiguity and strengthen everyone’s hand in child safeguarding”
If a law banning marriage under the age of 18 had been in place, Banaz’s story might have had a different ending, said Payzee, who is hoping MPs will back the bill.
A spokesperson for the government said: “The UK is a world leader in the fight against forced marriage – making this despicable practice an offence in 2014 and issuing 2,605 forced marriage protection orders. The law is clear, whatever age a couple gets married, they have to be free to make their own decision.”
Source: The Guardian
Keyword: ‘So old he was losing his hair’: survivors urge MPs to end scandal of UK’s child brides | Global development