In depth: Survivor of forced marriage shares her story in Tower Hamlets

Campaigners are trying to raise awareness of forced marriages

Campaigners are trying to raise awareness of forced marriages - Credit: shutterstock image - steve bodycomb

A woman who narrowly escaped being forcibly married to her cousin as a teenager shared her story at an event in Tower Hamlets to raise awareness about forced marriages and so-called “honour” violence.

Shahina Swain told representatives from the council, police, and charities, about her experiences at a workshop at the Jagonari Centre, a community centre in Whitechapel recently.

The event was organised by the Karma Nirvana charity, a national organisation which helps victims of forced marriages and related violence.

Today, 31-year-old Shahina, who grew up in a small town in Yorkshire, is now living in the capital with her loving husband and enjoying a good career working for a London council.

But she also works as a passionate campaigner against forced marriages, because she was whisked to Bangladesh as a teenager where her family attempted to marry her off.

She spoke to the Advertiser this week in the hope young people at risk of being forcibly married will realise there are organisations who will fight to help them.

This is her story:

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My life as a young person was quite restricted. My family were Muslim and were very religious; I wasn’t able to have the same freedom as my western friends.

At 17, I had just finished my GCSE exams and one day my parents knocked on my bedroom door and said we were going on holiday to Bangladesh.

I was enthralled – it sounded like an adventure. I thought I’d come back and brag to my friends about my holiday. It was a big deal.

But within two weeks of arriving, my family bundled me into a small room and I noticed a bridal gown and jewellery. It dawned on me something wasn’t quite right.

Then I was informed I would be marrying my first cousin who was a year younger than me. I started to panic. I was quite distressed and I argued with my parents. I didn’t know who this boy was – I hadn’t even seen him.

But they said we’d be married in a couple of days and there was nothing I could do.

So I thought I had to go through with it. I was in a foreign country and was very isolated – there were no teachers or friends I could ask for help. I thought I’d have to let it happen and try to get out once I got back to the UK. I thought that was my only option.

Luckily, at the 11th hour, my older brother in England had heard what was going to happen to me and decided he didn’t want that.

He flew out and told my parents it wasn’t the right thing to do to retain my honour. He said it was wrong and I’d lead a miserable life. He said he didn’t want to see my potential go to nothing.

He threatened that if they didn’t let me travel back with him he’d alert the authorities, so they let me go.

I stayed with him at first, but later decided I wanted to go back to my parents as I was quite confident they wouldn’t try to do it again.

I went to university and got a politics degree. While I was there I fell in love with a Caucasian [white] man. I knew it wouldn’t go down well with my family and I tried to lead a double life.

It was extremely difficult and I went through a lot of hardship for years, but eventually I had to tell them.

They decided to disown me. It was another betrayal.

Gradually I started to rebuild my life – I just had to get on with it.

I got a job and started doing charity work, which led me to work with [forced marriage charity] Karma Nirvana.

I became a spokesperson against forced marriage and I try to do a lot of preventative work.

My family disowned me nine years ago now. But my door will always be open to them and I still love them dearly. I hope one day they will knock on my door and invite me back in.

But I’m very content – I have a loving husband and in-laws, and friends and my career. I’ve got a lot going for me. Maybe because of what happened to me.

I just want young people – girls and boys – to know that if they are experiencing this they can get in touch with organisations who will help them.

Awareness is knowledge, and knowledge is power – that’s the key.

• If you are a victim of forced marriage or honour-based violence – or believe you might be at risk of becoming one – contact national charity Karma Nirvana on its free helpline, 0800 599 9247.

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