More than 1,100 women were forced into marriage in the UK last year, according to official figures, but the true extent of abuse is thought to be far higher due to victims' fears about the potential consequences of speaking out. The government describes it as "a hidden crime".
A forced marriage differs from an arranged marriage in that it takes place without one or more of the partners' consent, or against his or her will. Someone may be pressured into the marriage with physical or sexual violence, or through emotional and psychological abuse, such as being made to feel like you’re bringing shame on your family, the government's Forced Marriage Unit says.
It has been illegal for four years in England and Wales and is punishable with a jail sentence of up to seven years, but there have been just two successful prosecutions – both of which took place last month. In each case the parent(s) were convicted of forcing their daughter into marriage by compelling them to leave the country. In the first, a mother was jailed for four-and-a-half years for forcing her then-17-year-old daughter to marry a relative almost twice her age in Pakistan, while in the second a 19-year-old was lured to Bangladesh to marry her cousin and have his baby.
More than a quarter of victims are under 18, with girls as young as 13 having sought help from charities, and it's a crime that stretches across cultural boundaries, with cases reported in 2017 having links to 65 "focus" countries, according to the FMU. Sunny Angel, 39, is a forced marriage survivor, campaigner and author who has written a book about her experience, which began when she was a teenager. She was born in the UK and grew up in Surrey, where the events she recalled to Refinery29 UK took place. This is her story.
Before the forced marriage happened I had a stalker at college for a year when I was 17. He abused me, tortured me, held me captive, so when I finally escaped I was a burden on the family, damaged goods, and they looked to get me married off.
My mum and dad asked me what I was doing one Wednesday and when I said I’d be at work they told me, "Take the day off because you’re getting married". That was when the registry wedding happened. I’d seen the guy a couple of times but I wasn’t ready to get married. Because I’d been a rape victim I couldn’t stand the thought of someone touching me. I needed counselling and my parents said "No, we don’t do counselling" and sex was never spoken about. It turned out that my soon-to-be husband was forced into marrying me as well. He had mental disabilities and didn’t realise what was going on either, so his parents forced him into it. The whole thing was really quite sad.
For the whole of our Hindu wedding day his face was covered with flowers. He couldn’t see properly and I couldn't see him for the whole ceremony until his mask was lifted off and I was shocked. He didn’t speak to me at all and just ignored me completely. He raped me on our wedding night and then he rang his mum and said, "I’ve done it now, can I come home?" It was really awful and hurtful. She said "No, you’ve got to stay, there are still guests here, we’ll come and pick you up in the morning." He asked if he had to share the chocolates we were given, she said "No, you can eat them all," and he did.
Living with him was really difficult – his mum would stand by the bedroom door telling him to hit me and rape me.
When we were married he’d spit in and regurgitate his food, he wouldn’t go to the toilet unless he had his mum’s permission, he wouldn’t cross the road. He had a childlike life – he’d play with his toy soldiers, but he was 25 and I was 20 by the time we married. Living with him was really difficult – his mum would stand by the bedroom door telling him to hit me and rape me. He didn’t know what sex was, so she would watch porn with him at two in the morning, telling him what to do to me because she wanted a grandson. We all lived in the same house – him, me, his parents and two brothers. She was using me as a slave, she’d make me do all the cooking, cleaning, and it was awful.
We were married for five months in total, before I ended up in hospital because they were mistreating me. They wouldn’t let me eat – they said unless you give us a dowry of £10,000, a Mercedes, a personalised number plate, a washing machine – the list was endless – they wouldn’t give me any food, and say "let’s see how long you last". My parents eventually came and got me because they'd heard rumours that if they didn’t I’d be killed. It was going to be honour abuse, dowry abuse and an honour killing. My husband's parents were going to kill me off if they didn’t get what they wanted.
I moved back to my parents’ house after that. It was awful because obviously I felt rejected and unwanted. I was damaged goods to start with because I was a victim of grooming and rape, and then on top of that at 21 I was getting divorced. I had a black mark against me. In the Asian community 20 years ago, it wasn’t a done thing. I was the black sheep of the family.
I had post-traumatic stress symptoms for many years but I’ve done a lot of hypnotherapy on myself. The NHS couldn’t deal with the issues I had at the time. Thankfully, due to organisations like Karma Nirvana there’s greater awareness now and people can get help, but 20 years ago there was none. I do reiki and self-healing, and life is good now, I’m really happy because I’m able to give back and help others, to share my pain and tell them they’re not alone.
I'd grown up to believe I was just an object and I accepted it, and that’s the same for a lot of people.
I'd grown up to believe I was just an object and I accepted it, and that’s the same for a lot of people in that position. You don’t realise that abuse is not love until you’re out of it on the other side and you see it happening to someone else. Now the tide is turning and I’ve broken the cycle. I’ve got a 10-year-old daughter and I’d never put her through something like that. That's the same for a lot of survivors. They’ve gone through enough pain that they think, 'Enough’s enough, I’m not doing that to my child'. It’s abuse, it’s not about culture or religion, it’s just an abusive mindset.
My family and I still live in the same town, but it will never be the same again. They wanted me to be a good Indian girl, to be settled, be married and have kids in an Asian family. That’s what every Asian family wants but that wasn’t meant to be for me. I’ve seen them across the road but my parents effectively disowned me 20 years ago, and my brothers don’t speak to me. I’ve told my mum and dad about my book and that I’ve changed my name, and that it’s not to shame them but to help others because a lot of people are suffering. I'm not in touch with my ex-husband or his family and I don't know what happened to them. I feel sorry for him, to be honest. I’ve moved on, remarried, became widowed and then moved on again. Life’s about moving forward for me.
To any women currently experiencing what I've been through, I'd say reach out and get help from an organisation like Karma Nirvana or a close friend. You should be able to choose your own life partner because your life is yours and you’re not an object. There are laws against forced marriage now – there have been two convictions – so we know it’s doable to get justice, and people are taking it more seriously. It affects the next generation too – when you have children with someone and they don’t see the love, you’re passing it on again and again. You should be able to spend your life with someone you love, to be loved and give love.