By: Maha Mussadaq
ISLAMABAD: “One day, when my smart phone caught nearby Wi-Fi signals, I knew this was my only chance to ask for help,” said Faiza Javed, a woman who was stuck in a marriage she was forced into at the age of 14.
Like many girls who go through the ordeal of forced marriages, Javed, a British national of Pakistani origin, was called by her family members to visit her ailing grandmother in Mirpur in Azad Jammu and Kashmir during her school holidays. Upon her arrival she was informed that she would be getting married. Her cellphone Sim and laptop were taken from her by her relatives and she was confined to a room for days.
By chance, she noticed her smartphone catching nearby Wi-Fi signals. Javed luckily got an opportunity to email the UK High Commission in Islamabad and sought help in time. Soon, the rescue team drafted a strategy, travelled to AJK, rescued her and she was successfully sent back to the UK.
To observe and monitor operations, a senior officer at the London Forced Marriage Unit visiting Pakistan came down to meet with the offices operating here for the cause. In an exclusive meeting with journalists, the official informed that while monitoring global trends, in 2012 alone, a total of 1,500 calls were received out of which 47% were from Pakistan. Most cases belong to Mirpur in AJK and south of Punjab, while some were from Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa and Sindh. Almost 80% of these callers are female while 20% are male.
A large number of cases are being reported from Iraq, Afghanistan and Somalia. The trend is also growing in the Middle East and Africa, the official said. The act is considered a violation of human rights, the official added.
Both London and Islamabad are now working to expand the outreach and awareness campaigns.
As awareness has grown, a large number of girls made headlines by hiding spoons in their pants to set off the security alarms at Heathrow Airport in London, seeking help by the authorities. “There are other ways too,” said the official. Britain is campaigning aggressively by handing out cards with the helpline number on it. The official also said that police authorities and airport officials have been engaged to look out for such cases. The UK government is planning to apply these strategies at Manchester Airport where the influx of UK Pakistanis is large.
If no family member supports the citizen, he or she is then placed at a shelter home and supported by the UK government. The official further said that if a victim is aware of other victims they can provide their information. The caller is informed of the consequences; if not rescued successfully, the victim can also fall prey to domestic violence and abuse.
On Pakistan’s front, while no such effort has been made to engage the airport authorities, the officials believe that at the moment they are focusing on engaging communities and raising awareness. Moreover, religious scholars and clerics have also been engaged in smaller towns for this cause.
The UK’s civil laws only apply to citizens and cannot be taken overseas. The UK government is now planning to criminalise forced marriages and make the issue part of the ‘ Anti social behaviour and Policing Bill’.
In Pakistan, however, legislation is present. Moreover, serious charges can be applied depending on the case.
Speaking to The Express Tribune, Khalida Salimi, director SAACH, the only NGO working for forced marriages in Pakistan, said that the increase in the number of cases reported shows the success of the awareness campaigns. She said that after UK nationals, a large number of Norwegian, French, Danish and American Pakistanis have also started reporting. Salimi said that starting with just 50 cases being reported back in 1995, number of cases now go up to thousands annually.
Yet, in her opinion, educating the feudal mentality still remains a challenge. There are several despicable cases such as a five year old girl married to a nine year old boy or a disabled girl married to a Pakistani for nationality gain and other reasons. “The journey from denial to acceptance has lead to commitment and encouraged implementation,” said Salimi, adding that outreach of the NGO was very limited and the time had come to engage the government on a larger scale. She said that although legislation is present, the new government must accelerate efforts to raise awareness.