A vulnerable woman who fled her home and changed her identity because she feared she would be forced into marriage, discarded her laptop and changed her number as she was terrified her family would use them to track her down.
It has now been a year since Isha* ran away, turning her back on the life she once knew and the dreams her strict family had for her, which involved marrying a complete stranger.
After finishing her degree in social science, the 23-year-old made the decision to take control of her own destiny, sneaking out of the family home and moving miles away from her friends.
“The hardest part was leaving home; if I hadn’t left at that time I don’t think I would have ever left. I went on the internet and looked at where I could go where they wouldn’t find me,” Isha told Eastern Eye.
“I thought they [her family] could trace me so I got rid of the laptop and changed my phone number.
“I changed my name as well. I was just really scared at the start that they would chase me somehow, but it’s been a while now,” she added.
“I felt I had no choice. If I stayed at home I would have had to get married and the only way I could get out of that was to leave.”
Tragically, Isha’s story is not uncommon. Since changing her old identity, she has received support from Freedom charity, which has been instrumental in campaigning for legislation to outlaw forced marriage.
The organisation has worked with the police on the case and helped Isha find accommodation and change her name.
“It’s been hard but I’m proud that I did it. Before it was a dream but I’m glad that I did it. I’m getting on with my life. It is hard not having my family but I have had support from Freedom and other organisations,” Isha added.
“It’s strange starting a new life; my life has changed, I’ve changed my identity and my name, I’m in a new place. At the same time I feel good, I’m looking forward to my future and getting everything that I ever wanted.
“I’ve got quite a lot of support workers and counsellors around me; when I find it hard I talk to them about it.
“I’m making my own decisions in life; doing what I want to do, getting a job, starting my life again, meeting more people, making new friends.
“It is hard; you do get scared that they are looking for you but I’m more confident about my future,” she explained.
Isha urged other young women who were at risk of being forced into marriage to seek support and guidance and to avoid feeling alone.
Last year, the Forced Marriage Unit (FMU) gave advice or support to those at risk of the practice in 1,267 cases.
In total, 11 per cent of cases involved victims under the age of 16, and 17 per cent of incidents where the age was known involved victims aged between 18 and 21.
However, the full scale of the abuse is not known as many more cases may be going unreported.
The FMU has handled instances of British girls and males being forced into marriage in 88 different countries, including Pakistan, India, Bangladesh, and Sri Lanka. Aneeta Prem, founder of Freedom, told EE there were “several forced marriage prosecutions in the pipeline” following last week’s first conviction since the new law was introduced a year ago.
“Forced marriage leads to serial rape; it leads to domestic violence, it leads to suicide rates being higher among Asian girls, three times more than any other group.
“It can ultimately lead to murder – so will they [victims] get their parents into trouble? The answer is yes. But these are perpetrators of horrendous crimes, so that needs to be put into context,” she said.
As well as working with women in the UK, Freedom also helps to repatriate youngsters who have been taken abroad by their families to be forced into marrying suitors abroad.
Prem told EE: “A girl we rescued recently changed her complete identity; everything about her has now changed. We have relocated her somewhere completely different, and she has no contact at all with her family.
“Her parents have threatened to kill her if they find her so it takes an awful lot of courage for people to come forward.
“The option was she would have been taken abroad and married to her first cousin, and because she didn’t agree to that she would have been serially raped. Her family now have a forced marriage protection order out against them.
“It is not an easy thing. We have rescued many young girls and it means changing their identity. It often means that they never see their family again, and they don’t want that.
“Nobody wants that, but the option is that their family could end up trying to kill them. And that’s a real risk, so in that respect, something has to be done.”
For more information about Freedom charity, go to http://www.freedomcharity.org.uk or call 0845 607 0133.
*Isha’s name has been changed.