Meet the liberator

12 min read

The woman rescuing child brides

Girls are being trafficked into violent marriages. It could be your colleague, your neighbour, your beauty therapist... and this woman says the government isn’t doing enough. Jennifer Savin heads to Heathrow airport to witness a forced marriage rescue – and investigate a devastating issue that’s so often swept under the rug

No matter how many soothing ‘yoga breaths’ I take, my heart is jumping. Yet, for everyone else in the airport , it’s business as usual. A middleaged man comes out of the arrivals gate, near to where I’m hovering, and heartily slaps his friend on the back . Flight attendants laugh as they breeze past . Toddlers follow their parents, tugg ing along miniature animal-shaped suitcases. On the surface, it’s a normal day.

Still, looking around, I worry that other people are waiting here for Maya*, too. Is there a spy lurking among the bored-looking taxi drivers holding signs? Could someone have intercepted her journey? Will she even make it through the arrivals gate?

At just 12, Maya was sent abroad by her mother to marry under the guise of it being ‘honourable’, and so that her family would be given money as a trade-off. But Aklima Bibi – a British-Bangladeshi activist, author of The Londini Bride, lawyer and survivor – heard of Maya’s situation and stepped in. She’s standing beside me at the airport, and I’m trying to use her track record to soothe my racing heart. She has, to date, coordinated the rescues of over 100 trafficked women and girls who’ve been forced or groomed into getting engaged or married against their will.

A violent forced marriage (not to be confused with a consensual arranged marriage) is something that Aklima has lived through herself. Now, she fights for others. To help Maya, Aklima first made contact with the British government but, after feeling that it wasn’t moving fast enough, she reached out to her contacts (including border patrol staff and social workers overseas) to help smuggle Maya out of her family’s home and put her on a flight back to the UK, funded from her own pocket. Now, all we can do is watch the gate, in the hope that Maya will walk through those doors and on to Aklima’s ‘saved’ list.


It could be easy to think that because many of the marriage ceremonies take place abroad, forced marriages aren’t a big problem here in Britain. But they are. And cries for help are on the rise. Recent UK government stats show its Forced Marriage Unit (FMU) responded to almost 300 enquiries in 2022, and Karma Nirvana, a national helpline that supports forcedmarriage victims, dealt with 42% more calls between April 2022 and March 2023 than it did in the same period two years before.

While it’s mostly girls and women at risk, boys and men can be coerced into marriages, too

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