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How do we keep girls safe?

I am hurrying through a maze of streets in a city in Pakistan with two officials from the British High Commission in Islamabad. It’s a race against time to rescue a British girl who fears she is being forced into marriage against her will. Sana, a 19-year-old from the Midlands, was brought here by her parents, lured with the promise that she could go to university. Instead, she was physically abused when she refused to marry a man she had never met.

Sana cannot leave the house and is afraid to speak on her mobile, but she can text. Smartphone technology enables British Consul Simon Minshull and his local colleague Neelam Farooq to pinpoint the house. Taken unawares, Sana’s parents let the officials in, and Farooq immediately insists on seeing her alone, telling her father they are concerned for her welfare. Once alone, Sana tells Farooq she is desperate to leave. “She has asked for assistance and we cannot refuse that,” Farooq firmly tells her father.

Now Minshull demands the girl’s British passport. While her father stalls, Farooq hustles Sana out. The family have made a phone call and more relatives are on their way. Things could turn nasty. Within minutes, Sana is in our armoured convoy and we are speeding away. A slight figure with a quiet but determined manner, she confides that she was terrified the officials would not come, or that her father would not let her go.

“The abuse was very bad,” she says, admitting she had considered suicide rather than go through a forced marriage: “I thought the easiest way out was death, hard as that is… either that or get the embassy to help.”

The dramatic rescue in Pakistan was the culmination of work by a special government team – the Forced Marriage Unit (FMU) in the Foreign Office. It deals with around 1,400 cases a year but believes there may be more than 6,000. The unit has cases in 74 countries, but 42 per cent involve Pakistan, due to the large diaspora community in the UK. Last summer, forced marriage was made a criminal offence in Britain – a signal from the Government that the practice, which can lead to abuse, rape and murder, will no longer be tolerated. “Forced marriage is a government priority,” says Minshull, “and our commitment is that we will use the option of rescuing someone where we need to.”

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