This is an extended edit of the interview published in Issue 4 of The New Idealist which you can download here
Please note: This article was first published on the original version of The New Idealist online in February 2014 before being added to this newly created site in July 2015.
The New Idealist talked with Aneeta Prem, founder of The Freedom Charity which worked with police to secure the release of three women held in apparent domestic slavery for more than 30 years in November 2013.
When asked why she founded the charity, Aneeta talked about how her work with the Metropolitan police highlighted that young people weren’t being given any advice around forced marriage and dishonour violence. Aneeta then recounted how she ran a karate club when she was 17 and one of her students was taken abroad and forced into marriage when she was 14. The girl subsequently took her own life and that event contributed to the formation of the charity years’ later.
Where does the policy stand with forced marriage at the moment, is it a criminal offence?
It will be in the spring. It’s going through parliament now, I’ve addressed the Select Committee on it, given evidence to them…we know it’s not going to be made law and suddenly all things are going to be better, but it will certainly help.
What made you decide to take the approach of a writing a book (“But its not fair”) targeted at the best friend as opposed to those at risk themselves?
When I was doing (school) assemblies pre-writing the book, a lot of people were saying they wanted to know more information about it…and having worked a lot with young people throughout the years’ as a Magistrate and the work I’ve done running my karate clubs…I just thought my ideal thing would have been a Brit-flick type film…but we didn’t have the money, or resource or know-how and when I when into schools and spoke to teaching staff, a book seemed an obvious choice.
It sounds like you’re interested in doing a short film?
Absolutely. Young people need things that are more interactive, it’s really important…it’s a really easy way that they can understand it. I’ve managed to work with one particular school…and they’ve read a chapter each to camera and a lot of students have done it…and got it on You Tube as well. When they can see friendly faces reading the chapter to them because they don’t want to read the book themselves they can go on You Tube and have it read to them.
In an ideal world they would have celebrities reading a chapter each…we’re using young people as a sounding board for what they wanted.
Can you tell us about the Freedom Charity App you have launched?
When we went into schools doing lots of assemblies and talking to the police and MP’s, they all kept saying “where are your leaflets?” and we didn’t have any money for leaflets. Things change all the time and how do you keep up to date? 90% of young people have got smart phones and having an app on their phone would make a difference…and it’s interactive so they could ask for immediate help and we’re just meeting demand.
I think one of the things about being quite a small charity and quite fast-moving is that there’s a need there if you have an idea, it’s just trying to find the resource to do it.
Is there a help button which links directly to your charity?
Yes there is. If you type in “Freedom Charity”, it’s a free app available on all platforms. You can get directly in contact ringing or texting the police, which not a lot of people know you can do. You can get in touch with the charity either phoning or texting the charity directly or there is other services.
And the police have been using it as a tool themselves, their officers have, so they’ve got the key signs of forced marriages, abuse, female genital mutilation. We’re going to encapsulate trafficking on that, domestic violence and rape as well. The police are calling it “The 999 of Apps”.
MPs use it as well because they‘re often duped by parents trying to say to them “oh actually we need to get a spouse visa for somebody and they can’t come in” or whatever, and it’s got the warning signs on as well, and a lot of MP’s have downloaded it onto their phone. We did a big launch in March and had a number of MPs (and Ministers), there as well. We had the students actually teaching the Ministers and MPs how to use the app!
It’s quite a unique thing. There’s a lot more it can do. If we had the money we could have a tracking facility if somebody needed to be tracked (like a “find my phone feature”)…there’s so much more that can happen with it for the technology that we have, but it’s just managing the finances to do it.
In addition to raising awareness of forced marriage you also help those in forced domestic servitude (modern day slavery). (This attracted a lot of publicity recently when Freedom charity worked with police to help rescue three women from 30 years’ of apparent slavery). Can you tell us how the women came into contact with your helpline?
They had seen me on TV, running various summer campaigns around young people going missing from school, and they said they could relate to me (as) I had a ‘friendly face’. They believed I would make a difference and do something to help them. They had seen me a number of times, talking about it. And they managed to phone up and didn’t say very much but it was enough to raise the alarms and because the helpline is run by 20 professionals…other helplines will only help you if you fit their particular criteria…we won’t do that.
When someone tells you something, you have to deal with it so when it went through to the actual hub of the charity and we then took the call over…it was a human rights abuse…and we gained the trust of the people who were calling up.
After the initial phone call, what role did the charity play in helping the women escape their situation?
With the planning and finding them accommodation, and managing how that was going to happen and being sure they were looked after. Knowing they needed ‘freedom’ was the reason they called us.
For us now the problem we have is that one day in a 36 hour period we had 2.5m hits on our website…none of the charity staff are paid and we are absolutely at risk now of not being able to function because of the huge demand and we definitely need help and support to move forward.
It’s not only people phoning up its people emailing…people use different media because of social media aspect, they use different forms to contact the charity and I would have thought it would have peaked but it hasn’t, it’s stayed at a massively high level.
Telephone calls have increased fivefold…and we thought it would have subsided…but it hasn’t…people are still asking Freedom for help on so many different levels.
What support is it you need?
For us it’s just trying to get support…we need financial help, we need people to help write bids for us so that we can apply for funding. We’ve haven’t got the skillset, where we are now, to get that funding in place.
Also people want to become volunteers, but that requires someone to manage and co-ordinate them so that there time is used usefully and they can make a difference.
How are you funded at the moment?
We’ve received very, very little funding. We’ve received some money from the forced marriage unit…and some donations. Nobody is paid which means…having to work 7 days a week on this…it’s not sustainable.
The charity is in the hearts and minds of people not only in the UK but internationally and has had so much interest internationally, because the slave case became an international story.
When you’ve got people who have fantastic skills in bid-writing that have got time to do that and who believe in what we’re doing it could really help us. Those people charge…and we don’t have the resource to do that. It’s almost like a chicken and egg.
It’s fantastic to have this awareness and people wanting to contact the charity, but with that comes responsibility that we need to be able to fund it correctly so that we can offer the correct resource to the people that contact us.
Your focus is on raising awareness of the issues in family relationships which can lead to early and forced marriage and dishonour based violence. In the UK it can be seen as more of a “cultural” issue for communities to resolve themselves. Do you think there is a role for the wider public to play in spotting the signs of forced marriage in the house across the street or at the workplace for example?
Absolutely. Because the neighbour, the friend might be the only person that can make a difference.
…that would have helped these three women, if their neighbours knew what was going on. A lot of people…have no idea where to go next and that’s why people have been contacting the charity, because we’re seen as the place to go to next. If we can’t help you, we’ll be sure to find someone who will help you.
What are the signs of forced marriage?
On a young person it’s being more withdrawn, not being engaged in education. Someone picking them up, not being able to have a normal social life that you would expect anybody in the UK to have. Self-harming, a sibling that got married earlier.
What else do you think the government can do to help victims of forced marriage and forced domestic servitude?
Ensure that organisations like Freedom have the correct funding to deal with people when they come forward. Because the likelihood of them contacting a government agency for help is quite remote compared to speaking to a charity that’s got a human face at the end of that call or email.
What would you like to see Freedom achieve in the future?
Being a charity that can deliver and fulfil the policies it needs to keep everybody safe.
We’re also looking for Patrons for the charity. So that might be people that really feel committed to what we’re doing…to raise awareness, raise funds and support the work that we’re doing…it would make a huge difference.
Anyone wishing to support the charity can visit www.freedomcharity.org.uk for more information.
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