Forced marriages are becoming so common in Britain that the government has put the country’s teachers, airport workers and doctors on watch for signs of the problem among young women and men. But a charity for victims of abuse and forced marriage has found a creative way for victims to escape, one that takes advantage of the fact that the forced marriages rarely happen within the country.
The U.K.-based charity Karma Nirvana is urging victims of forced marriage to put a spoon in their underwear before they go to the airport to be flown off to their family’s homelands to meet their new spouses. The spoon will cause metal detectors at the airport to beep and the victims will be taken away from their parents to be searched, giving them one last chance to alert airport authorities that they’re being forced into marriage.
Natasha Rattu, Karma Nirvana’s operations manager, told the Agence France-Presse that tricks like the spoon in the underwear are essential to help victims avoid arranged marriages because it’s often impossible for them to safely stand up to their families. Refusal to marry can lead to abuse from family members and honor killings — one woman told the AFP that her father warned her that if she tried running away to avoid her marriage, he would find her and kill her.
Typically, Karma Nirvana gets about 6,500 calls per year from people worried that they’re being forced into marriage, though that number is growing as the charity raises awareness about the issue. Last year, Britain’s Foreign Office’s Forced Marriage Unit dealt with about 1,500 cases of forced marriage — the oldest victim was 71 years old, and the youngest was only two.
Most forced marriages in Britain occur among residents of South Asian ancestry — last year, almost half the forced marriages documented in Britain were among Pakistani families, with Bangladesh, India and Afghanistan among the other most common countries of descent. The marriages are most common during the summer holidays, when the victims — more than four out of five of whom are girls or young women — will be taken back to their homelands for “vacation,” only to meet a man they may never have seen before who they’ll be forced to marry. Victims don’t always know when or if the marriage will occur, so Karma Nirvana is trying to spread the word to potential victims that they should call the charity if they have any fears that they might be forced into marriage. The charity is also working with airport officials in Britain to educate them about potential signs of forced marriage, including one-way tickets, travelling during the summer, whether the travelers look uncomfortable and, of course, whether they has spoons in their underwear.
The problem isn’t limited to the U.K. either. In the U.S., forced marriage is “a growing problem,” according to the women’s-rights nonprofit AHA foundation, though data on the issue is limited. A 2011 survey — which is thought to be the first of its kind in the U.S. — revealed about 3,000 known and suspected cases of forced marriage involving women from 56 different countries in two years. Sixty-seven percent of survey respondents said they thought there were cases of forced marriages in their communities that weren’t being addressed, suggesting “a potentially large hidden population of individuals at risk.” Multiple organizations in the U.S., including Unchained at Last and the Tahirih Justice Center are working to help victims avoid and escape from arranged marriages, which can be abusive and lead to suicide.