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Refuge for the sub-continent's abused women

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    Refuge for the sub-continent's abused women

    "Refuge for the sub-continent's abused women"
    By Stephen Farrell in Lahore
    The Times
    12 May 2001,,3-200743,00.html

    OUTSIDE the safe-house a murderous sun whipcracks off the road, stinging anyone foolish enough to venture out in the midday heat.

    Here in the city where Narina Anwar and her sisters fled, a human rights group runs one of three refuges in Pakistan and Bangladesh to which the Foreign Office has just given £60,000.

    It is here that the victims of British forced marriages will stay while their affairs are sorted out so that they can return to Britain.

    None of the seven girls here now is British. Sehr and Maria (not their real names) were both sold into marriage by their families for £900. Nabila, now 11, was raped several years ago by four men whose family wants to get rid of the only witness. Others are Christians who say that they have been persecuted by Pakistanís majority Muslim population.

    Last month the unit was visited by a Foreign Office community liaison unit delegation, which handed over a cheque for about £10,000.

    The Foreign Office dealt with 160 forced marriage cases last year, more than 60 per cent from Pakistan, more than 25 per cent from Bangladesh and the rest from India. More than £300,000 has been spent on creating links between British police and forces in India, Pakistan and Bangladesh.

    One official said: "Often it is a control thing ó the desire by a family to strengthen links that they feel are going astray ó and often it is visa-related, which we have to be sensitive about. We are not out to stop people coming to the UK; we are out to stop peopleís basic rights being abused."

    Some critics believe that the Foreign Office is still not active enough. Hannana Siddiqui, of Southall Black Sisters, said that until recently officials remained reluctant to get involved, using the fact that many girls also have Bangladeshi and Pakistani nationality as an excuse. She also criticised officials for interviewing Asian women in front of their families, when they were not able to speak freely. "It is misplaced notions of multiculturalism and often done to appease community leaders, often for votes, or to maintain race relations," she said.

    The Foreign Office believes that such issues have been tackled. A senior official said: "People were perhaps over-cautious and over-deferential to perceived cultural practices, but thatís certainly not the case now."