The Pakistani refuge rescuing UK girls from forced marriage

By Jerry Sullivan
BBC News

  • Published
Teddy bear on bed

Almost half of forced marriages involving Britons come from the Pakistani community. Amid calls from charities for the government to do more to keep track of how many children are forced into marriage during school holidays, a shelter in Pakistan is providing refuge for some of those who have managed to escape.

At a secret address in Islamabad surrounded by security, Khalina Salimi runs a refuge that has become a lifeline to girls and boys who have escaped forced marriage in Pakistan.

Ms Salimi is the director of Sach (Struggle for Change) - and she and her team of caseworkers deal with the rescue, rehabilitation and repatriation of girls and boys from around the world.

In the last year they have helped approximately 40 children and young people - 21 of whom came from the UK.

Media caption,

"The effects are very long lasting. Sometimes they need psychological counselling and sometimes psychiatric care"

Recent estimates suggest more than 5,000 people from the UK are forced into marriage every year and more than a third of those affected are aged under 16.

Some of the calls for help that Sach receives come from embassies and consulates that need assistance. Others come from the children themselves.

"No one case is the same," says Ms Salimi. "Sometimes we might get a call from them and if they are able we ask them to go to a shop and then we will go and get them," she says.

"Sometimes we are alerted to a wedding which is being held in public. We would not take a car there because we might be noticed, so we take public transport to the event, and then we grab the girl and run, run, run."

'Solitary confinement'

Ms Salimi, a sociologist, set up Sach in 1994. Initially the victims were too scared to come and seek their help - now they receive thousands of calls annually.

Image caption,
The Sach shelter has helped around 40 people escape forced marriage in the last year

Nineteen-year-old "Nazia" is typical of the young people helped by Sach. She was brought to Pakistan from the UK by her parents, ostensibly for a holiday. But when she arrived, they asked her to marry her cousin.

When she refused, Ms Salimi said, "She was kept in solitary confinement for a couple of days without food." When she still refused to marry him, they gave her an overdose of pills, so that it would appear that she had taken her own life.

However, her boyfriend in the UK had grown suspicious when he had not heard from her - and contacted the police. They liaised with the authorities in Pakistan and she was brought to Sach.

The living room at Sach is bright and airy - furnished to make new residents feel at home. Connected to the living room is a kitchen, which Ms Salimi says can also be a therapeutic tool for the girls and boys, who are often devastated by their experiences.

"If they like cooking then they can do that to make themselves a bit happier. They can cook for themselves and give themselves some structure and feel busy."

In the bedrooms, the beds are neatly made with a teddy-bear nestled between two pillows, ready to comfort the next resident.

"They don't know how long it is going to be that they will have to stay here, so we try and make it as homely as we can," says Ms Salimi.

Many of the young people will be traumatised from their experiences - and Sach uses psychologists, physiotherapists and doctors to help determine what the young person might need.

"The effects are very long-lasting and certainly they need psychological counselling," says Ms Salimi.

"It is not just about their escape. The abuses they have been going through are similar to those you might see in prisons - but carried out by parents."

Ms Salimi says the children do love their parents and are often confused that they are being forced to marry against their will.

"They might say, for example: 'My dad is really good to me and provides me with a good education - but then why is he not letting me study further, why is he pushing me to marry a boy who is illiterate, who is not compatible?'"


The choice to leave the family is not easy, especially in a country where the only people you may know are the people trying to force you to marry. It can also be very dangerous, which is why the location of the refuge is kept secret.

Ms Salimi says that the safety of the girls or boys, as well as the staff is paramount. Sometimes it is necessary to change their appearance.

"If they look modern, then we might give them a makeover to make them look more traditional. If they are more traditional with the hijab, we try to take them to the parlour and change their hairstyle, change their shoes, everything.

"It is very, very dangerous for them escaping from home and there is always a danger of being identified."

Other than makeovers they have to be careful when travelling to the airport. When they arrive back in the UK, the next stage of their uncertain future will begin.

But those - like Nazia who is now back in the UK - are the lucky ones. The organisation has been involved in investigations around the murder of teenagers who were being forced into marriage.


The UK's Forced Marriage Unit and charities working in the field say that although Pakistan may have the biggest number of forced marriages it is by no means the only country. This is an issue that crosses every border, religion, race, age and class.

Media caption,

Sara: "It was like you're an item to sell, to see what they can get"

Teenagers like Sara - not her real name - are all too aware of this. She was meant to be married off to a man twice her age in India over the summer.

"In exchange for [a] dowry he was going to give me land, a house, gold and all the wedding expenses," she said.

Sara says it made her feel like an object - "like being sold or exchanged".

She managed to escape to a refuge in the UK before the wedding.

School holidays

Aneeta Prem from the Freedom Charity, which helps raise awareness of forced marriage in schools, says it is vital that the government keep accurate numbers of children who fail to return after school holidays.

"At the moment the records are really sketchy - last year we asked for the figures and we were told by the education authority that no figures were being kept nationally," she says.

"They need to be collated nationally for us to know the scale of the problem and what we are really looking at."

This report was featured on Radio 4's PM programme, the BBC World Service and the Six O'Clock News.

If you've been affected by any of the issues in this story you can contact the BBC's Action Line or the Forced Marriage Unit.

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