Victims of honour-based violence and forced marriages across the Tees Valley are turning to the Halo Project, which has taken more than 1,000 calls and helped people at risk from five to 65. Lucy Richardson reports

ONLY 19 and now ostracised by her parents, one woman is now living in supported housing and trying to rebuild her life after the people she trusted most turned on her. After suffering physical abuse from both her father and her uncle and fearing she would be sent “on holiday” to marry against her will in Pakistan, her mother began to verbally attack her child after discovering she had a boyfriend.

“She called me a slag and a prostitute and said I was doing drugs,” says the victim, who asked to remain anonymous. “And my dad said there were naked pictures of me going around, which was completely untrue, so I told them he was dead to me.”

She was able to share her story and meet other victims at a recent support group organised by the Halo Project to help victims to move on.

Forcing someone into marriage in England and Wales now carries a maximum seven-year jail sentence under the Anti-Social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Act 2014, which came into force in June.

“It should have a big impact, because the last thing that victims want is to see their families in prison, but it is there for the cases that it needs to be,” says Yasmin Khan, director of the Halo Project, which has helped more than 100 vulnerable victims across Teesside.

She knew of Islamic wedding vows permitting a “couple” to live together and the Halo Project recently took out a forced marriage protection order to save an 11-year-old boy who had been promised to his cousin since the age of two.

After being alerted by a school and social services, they have also helped protect two sisters under eight from a similar fate.

“We have children at risk of being taken abroad for a forced marriage as young as five,” she explains. “As well as being taken to Pakistan, they are also under threat of being taken to other countries including Iran, Iraq and Saudi Arabia.”

“There are women who are being treated here like civil slaves – cooking and cleaning for no money. Women are told that if they report anything, they will have their children taken away.

So we offer support and everything that a victim could need, from accommodation to legal advice.”

Yasmin said violence against women was often by other women in the family who had been subjected to abuse themselves.

“It’s shocking how prevalent it is and that it is happening in our communities, When it’s physical abuse you can say, ‘Look at my back’, but they are also suffering from mental abuse every day. We have a number of older women.

One woman at the age of 65 had suffered a lifetime of abuse. Her children have gone against her and she had been locked out of the house.”

NOREEN Riaz, who works alongside Yasmin as a caseworker said their workload was increasing each week.

“Do not think that because it’s 2014 it is not happening. It’s excessive to say it’s prevalent, but we are not far off from that. Every week, we are getting more and more cases.

Women do not speak about sexual abuse.

The women are putting family honour before everything else. It’s shocking.”

Cleveland Police launched the country’s first dedicated honour-based violence and forced marriage Choice helpline in November 2007.

In each of the past two years, it recorded just under 30 incidents of honour-based violence, however it also received a number of calls from people asking for advice which were not recorded as a matter of routine.

And in 2013 it helped secure two forced marriage protection orders. A spokeswoman for Cleveland Police said the confidential hotline was run in a sensitive manner with staff trained in cultural awareness.

“Cleveland Police has a long-running and successful record of partnership working and we recognise and value highly the positive work of agencies in the community, such as Halo, who are often the first point of contact of victims,” she says, Police and Crime Commissioner Barry Coppinger, at Cleveland Police, handed over a cheque for £5,110 at the last Halo Project support group, money from the Police Property Act Fund.

He adds: “Honour-based violence and forced marriage continues to be an integral part of my work both locally and regionally to reduce violence against women and girls.

“Key to this work is building on partnerships with community groups to ensure that incidents are stopped, victims are supported, and perpetrators are brought to justice.”

n Victims can contact the Halo Project on 01642-683045 or the Cleveland Police Choice helpline on 0800 5999 365.