There are an estimated 136,000 people living on conditions of modern slavery un the United Kingdom (Global Slavery Index 2018). According to the 2017 annual figures provided by the National Crime Agency, 5, 145 potential victims of modern slavery were referred through the National Referral Mechanism in 2017, of whom 2,454 were female, 2688 were male and 3 were transgender, with 41% of all referrals being children at the time of exploitation. People are subjected to slavery in the UK in the form of domestic servitude, labour exploitation, organ harvesting and sexual exploitation, with the largest number of potential victims originating from Albania, China, Vietnam and Nigeria. This data however does not consider the unknown numbers of victims that are not reported.Laila’s family moved from Iran to Cyprus and then to the UK after her mother was diagnosed with Leukaemia. Laila was 12 years old when her mother died, and her father remarried. Her stepmother began planning Laila and her sister’s marriages to older men against their will, fearful that they were becoming too westernised. Not knowing what else to do, Laila and her sisters ran away
I was born in Iran. I lived there with my mum and dad and my two younger sisters, Homa and Maryam. My parents, particularly my dad, spoke about their dreams for us, going to university and having careers. It didn’t matter to them that we were girls.
Due to my dad’s political activities, it became too dangerous for us to live in Iran, so we moved to Cyprus when I was 11. Soon after, my mother was diagnosed with Leukaemia, and we were sent to the UK so that she could receive treatment. When I was 12 years old, my mother passed away. Homa was 10 and Maryam was four.
Within the year my dad got remarried, to an Iranian woman, who had been married before as a child when she was 13. Everything changed. She was strict and controlling. Before we’d been allowed to hang out with our friends at the shopping centre, but suddenly we weren’t allowed to go out or have friends around, not even girls from our community, because she thought they were too westernised and a bad influence. After school we had to get home within 45 minutes. She put a stop to pocket money and controlled what we wore. She blackmailed us emotionally, telling us that if we didn’t obey, our dad would have a heart attack. She’d shout and scream and my dad became this horrible person. We feared them both. And there was the threat that if we did not behave as expected, we would be sent to Iran to be married off.
She talked constantly about how women and girls should behave. She was training us to be good housewives. This is all she thought our futures should hold. All three of us, even Maryam who was only six years old at that time, had to cook, clean, and look after our step-mother’s own sons and the baby she’d had with my dad. Everything had to be immaculate; every day we had to vacuum and dust everything again. It was like we were her slaves.
I knew that my future husband would be chosen for me, but I was in denial about it, just hoping it wouldn’t happen. I had other plans. I wanted to go to university. But it was a constant struggle to get time to study. My step-mother would say ‘it’s not important, you’re a girl, what good will it do?’ Once I faked a note from my school saying I had to come in during half term, so I could go to the library and work. I was totally miserable, and walked around just wanting to cry, with this horrible sick feeling in my stomach.
I went from always getting A grades in all of my A-Level subjects, to D’s and E’s. This got the attention of my teachers, but they clearly did not understand “honour” based violence and they did not know what to do with us. They wanted to call my dad and step-mother in, to talk about why I was down, not realising that in “honour” based violence cases it is dangerous to mediate with the perpetrators. I was terrified that if my school spoke to my dad and step-mother, we would straight away be put on a plane to Iran to be forced into marriage. There was no referral to any specialist support group or social services and it was clear that the school didn’t have any policies for cases like ours. We’d never been taught about our right not to face “honour” based violence or forced marriage, if we had, I would have felt more confident that our school understood these issues. But, because they were not spoken about and the school obviously did not know how to help us, I did not trust that I could be open about the full extent of the abuse that we were experiencing and we continued to suffer in silence.
Maryam was very timid and had bitten all of her nails away. She wore the same ripped jeans and stained jumper every day and she was being bullied. It was obvious that she was suffering. However her primary school never looked into the reasons for this.
To protect my sisters, I tried to avoid confrontation. Homa did a few normal teenage things, like rip her jeans and listen to music, which made my stepmother anxious that she was getting too westernised and might shame the family.
When I was taking my A-Levels and Homa was sitting her G.C.S.E’s, Homa overheard my step-mother and my dad making plans for her marriage to a 40 year old man. We knew him, because we’d been taken to visit the family, but we’d had no idea that reason was to display us as potential brides. A friend of our step-mother, who’d recently fallen out with her, was taking English lessons in our school building. We asked her whether what Homa had overheard was true. Our hearts sank when she confirmed our fears. Homa, was seen as the more immediate threat to the “honour” of the family, so to control her and prevent her from bringing perceived shame on our family, she was going to be forced to marry.
We knew that there was no chance that we could change the minds of our step-mother and dad. If we tried, they’d probably send us to forced marriages in Iran. I didn’t trust that our schools would know how to protect us and feared they would try to speak to our step-mother and father if we approached them so I dared not tell them about the arrangements for Homa’s forced marriage.
For Homa and me, the school term had ended because we’d finished our exams. As soon as we had the opportunity, a few days later when our step-mother and dad went out with the baby, we called the police. They said that because the house was tidy and clean and we didn’t have any bruises to show them, there was nothing they could do. When we told them about the imminent forced marriage, they said ‘that’s your culture isn’t it?’ That really shocked us. They were supposed to protect us, but they were just going to leave us to face abuse. Now-days I think the police do have a better understanding of “honour” based violence, but it is so important that schools do too; they must have a role in supporting their pupils and ensuring that they get the protection and help they need.
Our step-mum and dad were due back any minute and they would find out straight away that we’d called the police, because our step brothers, who were in the playground at their primary school, right opposite our house, had seen the police car and so had our neighbours. As no-one, not our school, or the police seemed to understand the danger that we were in, we felt that we were on our own. We had no choice but to run away.
First we had to get Maryam. The most important thing was for the three of us to be together. Homa and I each grabbed a small bag, in mine I put a picture of my mum and my diary, and we ran over the road to get Maryam from her primary school. One of our step brothers, who attended the same school, saw us going to Maryam’s classroom and told us to come outside, because our dad was there. I told him to go and tell dad that we were coming, then we ran out of the back door, through the woods to the bus stop.
The woman who had confirmed the plans for Homa’s wedding with us, allowed us to stay with her for a few weeks. We informed social services that we had Maryam, and they arranged for us to speak with dad. He told us to return, only to stop shaming the family. He tried to blackmail us emotionally. The one thing that I am grateful to him for, is that he did not fight for custody of Maryam. Social services left on our own to look after ourselves after that.
The three of us started our news lives together. We found a flat and Homa and I each got two jobs, to pay the bills. Maryam, who had been shy, blossomed into a confident girl and Homa studied for her A-Levels. With everything that had happened, I had not got the grades that I needed to take up my place at university, but I studied hard, did retakes and got a place studying Biomedical Sciences at King’s College. I pursued my dreams and today I work as a trainee surgeon and have PhD.
In spite of everything, we survived. But it has been very tough. Looking back I know that things could have been very different for us if our schools had taught us about our rights not to face “honour” based violence and forced marriage, if they has informed us where to get the help we needed and if they had really understood what we were going through so that they could have given us the support that we needed from them.
This is why as, IKWRO’s Survivor Ambassador, I am supporting the RIGHT TO KNOW campaign.
Narrative provided by IKWRO