6: Help-seeking and impact of forced marriage on survivors
This chapter presents the experiences of the eight survivors of forced marriage who were interviewed for the study. To protect anonymity of participants, most of the identifying features of the survivors (all women) have been removed. Ethnicity is referred to as South Asian rather than Indian, Pakistani etc. and place names in the UK have also been removed. The participants are referred to as Survivor 1 etc. rather than with pseudonyms. Children are referred to in non-gender specific ways and ages are also concealed.
Seven women with experiences of forced marriage participated in the study. Their ages ranged from 21 to 49 years. All were from South Asian families. The spousal partners were also South Asian but from different countries of origin. Most of the women had children. Of the eight women, three women managed to escape before the marriage happened. In this context we refer to these women as having escaped the forced marriage and the other five as having the marriage 'contracted' which means the marriage and wedding ceremony took place. One of the women was forced to marry twice. The women were married from age 14 to age 25. One of the women was seeking asylum in Scotland.
Of the eight women, most were from England and fled to Scotland for safety reasons, and the majority of cases were historic. Only two of the women's experiences fell between the time-line of our project 2011-2014. However, given the range of experiences and that most of the women were now receiving, or recently received, support from women's sector organisations their experiences were still very relevant to informing understanding of this issue. It is also worth reporting that for all the women it is more appropriate to consider their experiences of forced marriage as a pattern of events rather than as a discrete act of being made to marry someone. All the women experienced severe and prolonged abuse, violence and control including psychological abuse, torture, imprisonment, isolation, sexual violence, control and surveillance.
6.1 Survivor experiences of accessing formal and informal support
Most of the interviews with survivors reveal many missed opportunities for offering help and intervention to protect them from forced marriage. Most of these experiences occurred prior to 2011 and most of the women were living in England at the time of their forced marriage and escaped to Scotland for safety. Nevertheless this data offers an understanding from survivors' perspectives accessing formal and informal support. The quotes below illustrate the range of formal and informal support that the women accessed. Some survivors turned to family and friends, others contacted statutory services, and some women did not contact anyone for help. The reasons for not seeking help from agencies were mostly either due to fears about confidentiality and inappropriate responses, or not realising that help was available and that they qualified for help.
I didn't really go to anyone … I think I just thought
I'm doing something wrong, I didn't think they were doing something
wrong, it was like I was doing something wrong'.
Of the eight survivors, six of them received support from third sector organisations in Scotland, and these six women all reported this help to be of critical importance. Five of the women were put into contact with the third sector organisation by statutory services (which included a school counsellor, police, social services, and a GP), and the sixth woman self-referred. Almost all the help received which was perceived as successful was from third sector women's organisations, although there are also some positive examples of statutory service involvement.
Friends and family
Friends and family responses varied from helpful to unsupportive. For example, Survivor 2 only accessed help after she revealed to her friend that her husband was keeping her imprisoned, and the friend issued an ultimatum that either she contact the police to report that she was being kept captive or her friend would do so on her behalf. Survivor 2 had also asked her family for help, but this served to reinforce the pressure she had originally experienced in resisting the marriage:
So that just made me call the police, I called the police and
then the police came up and then I just took my belongings and I
just went and stayed with my friends and I told my parents that he
was being controlling and hitting me and not being nice to
me… So they [parents] came across from [country] and they
tried to diffuse the situation and they basically told me that if I
was a good wife then he wouldn't hit me, basically, you know, it
was up to me to change my behaviour so that he wouldn't hit me. And
then they [parents] went back to [country] and then they wanted me
to go back and live with him, but I wasn't having any of it.
In contrast, when Survivor 7 told her friend what was happening, her friend's response was to confirm that this was a common experience for a lot of the girls in their community. The normalisation of this experience meant, for Survivor 7, an acceptance of the inevitability of it:
I told my friend. But …I think that a lot of Asian
people where I live…they start getting their daughters
married. So our friends, my friend that I was talking to she said
'I'm in the same situation'. So there was a lot of people in the
same situation as me, but some people got away, some people ran
away before they went to [south Asian country], some people got
married but left their partners.
Mixed reports were received of interactions with statutory services. Some survivors were not aware of any help at the time of their forced marriage as these were up to 20 years ago and support was minimal:
Now I know there's like sort of services that providing refuge
space, providing support for girls, you know, they're making sure
the girls are kept safe. You know, at that time I didn't know that
was available. … Obviously at that time there wasn't a
forced marriage helpline or anything who you could talk to. The
Government I don't think, took it so seriously at that time.
Survivor 4 experienced abuse from her brutally violent husband for nearly 20 years after her forced marriage. Despite the abuse and violence her family warned her not to tell anyone what was happening for fear of bringing shame onto herself and her family. However, after a particularly violent attack it was the police who recognised that something was wrong and pursued it:
I was so scared for telling anybody that I just took it and
took it and plus I couldn't because any time I told my family,
they'd say 'be quiet because people will say this and people will
say that'. … And then what happened is that he hit me, he
beated me up so badly, he tried to kill me and he got my hand, my
throat and he slit my wrist, my hand, so the police had to come. So
when the police come they asked me, but I told them I did it
myself, but you know, looking at, look, the police know, they're
not stupid so when they looked at everything, they said 'no,
there's something going on here' so they called the social services
in and then that's when I started to talk a little bit.
Survivor 5 was originally studying with a student visa in another UK country and then to escape the forced marriage she came to Scotland. The trauma of her experience led to mental ill-health and when the police found her, following an attempted suicide, they got her admitted to a mental health institution where she stayed for a number of months. She reported feeling safe and cared for when in the institution as she had a team of support including medical professionals, social workers and police:
You feel protected to have so many people, just to know you
have so many people looking after you, you feel protected.
However, she experienced a number of breaches of her confidentiality, with her telephone number and subsequent address being passed to her parents despite explicit guidance that there was to be no contact with parents or other family members. It is not known who breached this confidentiality as she was being supported by health service professionals, social work and the police. Despite this, she reported receiving a high level of care, but that the statutory professionals who were supporting her did not know how to proceed with her care:
My psychiatrist was very nice and the police officer as well.
Because I was here on a student visa it was a bit tricky as well to
know what to do, and to where I would go as well, if I was
discharged from hospital. So that's why they kept me in hospital
for that time, because they knew I was a vulnerable adult.
In contrast, Survivor 6's experience with medical professionals was not so successful. Her experiences were in England and a few years prior to Survivor 5, but in this case her husband and his family convinced the health visitor that after the birth of both children she did not need any health intervention, and falsely claimed that they were the victim's own mother and immediate family and would provide her with care. As a consequence, when she did try to disclose the forced marriage, violence, abuse, child abuse, neglect and control, her husband's family convinced them that she had mental health problems and was herself the source and instigator of the problem.
Survivor 7 was 15 when she was taken out of school and forced into a marriage in a south Asian country. None of the school staff inquired into her whereabouts, because not only had she been told not to tell the teachers what was happening but was taken abroad during the school the summer holidays when her non-attendance at school would not be noticed. However, Survivor 7 discussed the deep impact this had on her and her feelings of being 'unwanted':
No, I mean we didn't come back to school, I think by the time
we come back school was all over. I mean I think that's why I was
more hurt, the fact that no-one come looking for me, you know a
doctor, no-one and I was really, really hurt. The fact then, more
and more I thought that you know what? I was an unwanted person in
this world, I had stupid things in my head thinking that 'look, how
come no-one even asked for me? How come no-one found me?
She further describes the impact of being let down by statutory services:
At the time when I was going through all this I mean somebody
could have put a stop to it …all. Somebody could have saved
me from getting married, you know and then when I was gone for a
year, I mean somebody could have got me back and said 'you know
what? No' but just never happened… I was that girl in [south
Asian country], getting beat up, crying, asking for help and no-one
heard me …
In contrast, Survivor 3, whose forced marriage experience was more recent, explained that she told her school teacher that she was being forced into marriage. The teacher referred her to a school counsellor, who contacted a third sector women's organisation in Scotland. For all of the women, it was only when they came to Scotland that they were either referred to, or made contact themselves with, third sector women's organisations, and for the majority of them it was via a referral from a statutory service. In all of the cases, it was third sector women's organisations that offered survivors long-term, effective support, and all the women spoke of the different organisations that they had been in contact with in the highest regard.
Reasons for non-disclosure
Survivor 5 did not disclose to anyone until she was in a crisis situation. Survivor 1 discussed the concerns about confidentiality as a reason for non-disclosure:
I thought 'there's no way, they know my family!' … I
wouldn't go, there's no way, you know, they would gossip about me
or they would tell my mum where I am!
She also explained that there was a general view that problems should be kept within the family, and a view that women just had to tolerate whatever was happening to them:
Because the view, generally, not just in my family, is that
information isn't kept confidential, and that people might find out
what has gone on and then people will talk and it looks bad on the
family. So I don't think I would have accessed any services.
… It's the whole notion of women being seen and not heard
and not having a voice and just getting on …to just put up
Many of the survivors did not contact statutory services for fear that they would not respond appropriately, because they did not think their situation warranted statutory intervention, or because they did not want to report their family to the authorities. Also, where survivors did engage with the statutory sector, at times the responses were inadequate and/or increased the risk to survivors, largely in England, but also in Scotland. However, for the majority of survivors it was through a referral from a statutory service that they made contact with the third sector organisation, which did then result in them receiving help and support.
6.2 Impact of forced marriage
The impact of forced marriage on survivors was significant and key elements included negative outcomes for mental health, education and employment. The main positive outcome was that survivors were keen to ensure that their children would have the freedom to make important life choices such as marriage partners and education for themselves.
Impact on mental health
All the survivors discussed the impact of experiencing forced marriage on their mental health. For some the trauma led to quite serious mental distress. Many adopted coping mechanisms that involved transgressing parental boundaries, self-harm, suicide ideation and eating disorders. For example, Survivor 1 developed an eating disorder to deliberately make herself ill:
I would think, right, nobody wants to marry an ill woman.
Survivor 8 also developed an eating disorder as her husband wanted her to be slim whilst at the same time wanting her to get pregnant:
So, I was confused as to what he actually wanted because if he
wanted me pregnant then I would need to make sure I looked after
myself and ate properly, so, I ended up having an eating disorder
while I was married to him because the only way that I could lose
weight, that I could think of at the time was to not consume food.
Survivor 5 also discussed in detail the negative impact of her forced marriage experience on her mental health, which appeared to develop into an eating disorder and depression:
…towards the end there was like no lunch at all…
And it was the same with dinner. … By this point I was
getting very, very lonely and depressed as well so my
mental…health had deteriorated because at some point I was
thinking to myself 'like what exactly is the point of studying so
hard if at the end of the day you're just going to throw it all
away?... I wasn't going to class very much, I was waking up at odd
times of the day and going to sleep at odd times of the day.
She usually went home during the holiday periods, but she was so worried that her parents would proceed with the marriage ceremony that she contrived to stay in the UK over the Christmas holiday period, which led to an attempted suicide:
December was fast approaching, my mental health started going
very, very bad as well and then I started getting suicidal as well,
I was having suicidal thoughts at the time…
It was only after many years of extreme violence that Survivor 4 escaped to Scotland and was put in touch with a women's organisation that she realised that there was help available:
I sort of give up on life…I've tried to commit suicide
so many times because I sort of give up on life. I didn't know
there was help out here, which I've just come to Scotland…
She discussed how at the age of 15 she was taken abroad and forced to marry and was then left there with her husband's family. She was forced to become pregnant, and whilst pregnant with her second child her husband was killed. It was at this point, due to her severe mental ill health and suicidal ideation, that her parents finally came to take her back home to the UK:
Yeah because I was…very, very mentally
disturbed…so my mum …said to my father-in-law that
'I'm taking my daughter back because she's very disturbed and if
she stays here she'll probably die here, so I'm taking her back.'
So she brought me back…I just couldn't stay there. I said to
my mum 'you've got to take me out, if you don't take me out I'll
just kill myself'. So my mum brought me back.
Even where the forced marriage experience had occurred many years in the past, long-term mental health impacts continued to manifest themselves.
When I think back I still get scared, thinking that 'oh my god,
will this happen to me again?' But I know it won't because, you
can't get that thought of your head, the fact that you've been
through it and you've … I have nightmares still about it, I
mean I wake up shouting at night and you know sit there and cry
because you don't know, you had no-one to talk to at that time and
you know, no-one to help you out.
Impact on education
The impact on education was frequently discussed. This was in relation to girls being taken out of school and in cases where young women were permitted to study, this was within very prescribed and controlled circumstances, and with no prospects of being permitted to work post marriage. Survivors recognised the links between education and empowerment, or lack of empowerment where educational opportunities were denied:
Yeah, it upsets me 'cause I can't read, well, I can read, but I
can't…spell, I can't write and it really hurts because I
shouldn't have been out of school at that age. And even though we
did go to school, we used to go to school for a day and then mum
used to not let us go for weeks because at that time you could get
away with it. they [family] said 'oh…Muslim girls shouldn't
be allowed to go to school because they get communicating with
boys…so we wasn't allowed to go to school as normal girls.
Yeah, I was at college, but they took me out of college, so I
would try to go back to college, they would take me out, didn't
want me mixing. I was actually taken out of school when I was 12.
…. Yeah, because they didn't want me to have an education
because that makes the women more empowered.
Survivor 8 was encouraged to complete her university education, but only because it would make her more eligible for marriage:
Well, I was the first female in the family to go on to further
education, so in that sense my family were supportive in pushing me
into getting as high up the academic ladder as I possibly could, so
I was the first in fact the first in the family to go to
university, let alone the first female, so they definitely wanted
me to finish my degree and I wanted to finish my degree as well,
that was one of the conditions [of the marriage contract].
Impact on parenting
For those women with children, they discussed the impact their forced marriage experience had on how they raise and parent their own children. They discussed how they would give their children more choices and freedoms in their lives than they had experienced regarding friends, clothes, education and so on:
I've got two [children] and I'm never going to let them go
through what I've been through. I'm trying to give them the
confidence...I'm going to give them the confidence of marrying who
they want and who they love and let them educate themselves in
doing what they want. And trying, you know, I'm never going to get
in the way, never, and I'm going to try and let them have an
education what I didn't have.
Yeah, I think I'm more like, I want them to have more freedom
to have than I did, you know, choices, options, It's more not, so,
I don't know, authoritative to my children, … I want [them]
to understand that [they have] as much choices as [others].
Whilst their own experiences of being forced to marry by their parents led the survivors to parent differently it also raised questions about not comprehending how their own parents could do that to them:
It's your parents, exactly and then after having my own kids, I
just think, how could they do that? I just don't understand how
they could do that.
The eight survivors who took part in this study showed extraordinary resilience, courage and optimism despite experiencing severe abuse. The age range of when the forced marriage occurred was from 14-25; for five of the eight survivors the forced marriage was contracted, with one survivor being forced into marriage twice. For two of the eight women, the experience of forced marriage was recent or ongoing (within the last two years). All the survivors interviewed were South Asian. All the women received help only when they came to Scotland - whether from abroad or another of the UK nations. It could be tentatively suggested that Scotland does have a better response to forced marriage than other parts of the UK, although some of the survivors were talking of experiences many years ago. The impact of forced marriage included mental health problems and survivors were frequently denied educational opportunities. On a more positive note, survivors' experiences of forced marriage had engendered more liberal attitudes to parenting than those that they had experienced.
Survivors sought help from family and friends, and feared contacting agencies due to perceived confidentiality issues, family pressure, uncertainty about the appropriateness of response, and uncertainty about whether what had or was happening to them warranted agency involvement. Statutory service response was patchy and whilst positive in places, it was mostly inadequate. However, it must be reiterated that some of the women were reflecting on historic cases stretching back a couple of decades and, at times, referring to experiences that happened outside Scotland. Most of the women had had some contact with both statutory and third sector specialist women's support organisations. Statutory sector agencies largely referred women to third sector services, and contact with latter was reported as extremely positive.
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