By Jerome Taylor
The only time Saima Ahmed breaks down while recounting her forced marriage is when she retells the moment a family friend tracked her down and plunged a knife into her stomach for running away from home. The 20-year-old is calm and collected as she recalls being flown to Pakistan as a teenager, married against her will to a man she had never met before and raped every night until she became pregnant.
But when she thinks back to the stabbing - in which her unborn son died in her womb - the tears come. “I can still remember waking up in hospital, listening to those machines beeping and realising that my angel was gone,” she says, her voice cracking under the strain. “But it’s because of him that I have the strength to do this. If I can stop just one girl from going through what I went through it’ll be worth it.”
It is rare to find someone brave enough to speak privately about such a harrowing ordeal, let alone in public. But that’s exactly what Saima - not her real name - is doing. Over the next month she is touring the country as part of a nationwide road show highlighting a scourge that Britain has only just begun to tackle. The idea is to educate frontline staff – teachers, care workers and police officers – to spot the warning signs for when someone might be at risk. “You might only get one chance to save someone from a forced marriage,” says Saima whose own pleas to teachers and care workers that she was about to be taken to Pakistan fell on deaf ears. “Every fellow survivor I’ve met has stories about how they weren’t believed.”
Saima is also determined to see her parents face justice. No-one has ever been prosecuted for stabbing her, nor have her family ever had to answer for what they did. But over the summer she hopes to change that by building a powerful body of evidence that will force the police to act on her complaints. Her desire to seek justice is prescient. In the next two weeks the Government is expected to decide whether or not to make the act of forcing someone into marriage a specific criminal offence.
Prior to the general election David Cameron promised to do just that, calling forced marriages an “utterly bizarre and frankly unacceptable” practice. But after more than a year of the coalition government there has been little movement on the issue. Across Europe, however, there has been a growing trend to bring in specific anti-forced marriage legislation with Norway and Belgium leading the charge. Earlier this year Germany became the latest country to outlaw forced marriages, threatening anyone caught trying to marry someone off against their will with a five year jail sentence.