A prisoner in the house

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A prisoner in the house

The bride becomes a slave overnight. This is the story of hundreds of women brought into Britain thinking they are coming for an arranged marriage. Samira Shackle meets some of the prisoners, and some of the people who are fighting to help them.


No way out: every year, about 500 South Asian women are forced to become house slaves in Britain after an arranged marriage. (© Dinodia Photos/Alamy)

Jasminder was only 19 when she left her home, a village in India’s Punjab, to come to Britain. Her family was poor, and her parents had sold their house to get money for her plane ticket and dowry (wedding money). They believed that if they arranged her marriage to a British Indian man – a man they didn’t know – their daughter would have a better life.

The terrible problems started on the first day she arrived in London. When Jasminder entered the house and put down her bags, her mother-in-law told her to start cooking. The next morning, her sister-in-law woke her at 5am and made her cook for a party that evening. She was very tired after the flight, but she cleaned the five-bedroom house from top to bottom and washed all the family’s clothes. That evening, they told her to dress well. Her sister-in-law pretended to help her to get ready, but she put lipstick on her cheeks and brought her down to the guests. In front of the guests, Jasminder’s mother-in-law laughed at her for being a villager who did not know how to use make-up. It was Jasminder’s wedding reception.

Over the next two years, they laughed at her and treated her badly. Every day she had to cook for the family, take her sister-in-law’s children to school, clean the house, and do the washing and ironing. She had to wash her own clothes separately, under the cold garden tap, and to put the same clothes on before they had dried properly. They often hit her and pulled her hair. She cooked for the family, but she was only allowed to eat once a day, often late at night. They only gave her a small plate of food and sometimes they would spoil the food first by running it under water. She could drink water only when her mother-in-law and sister-in-law said she could, and she was not allowed to spend more than five minutes in the toilet, so that she could not drink from the tap. ‘I was a prisoner in the house,’ says Jasminder. She escaped when they took her to have an abortion – she did not want to go. She started crying and told the counsellor what was happening at home. Staff at the hospital called the police.

Shame and honour

This is shocking, but Jasminder’s story is not the only story like this. Campaigners say that around 500 women every year are in a similar situation. These women come to Britain, mainly from India, Bangladesh and Pakistan, as the wives of British citizens, and they face terrible domestic violence and slavery. It is always very difficult to report domestic violence, but in this case, it is more difficult because of the uncertain immigration status of these women. If someone comes to Britain on a spouse (husband or wife) visa, the marriage must last for two years before that person can stay legally in the country.

‘They control with violence,’ says Rahila Gupta, author of Enslaved: The New British Slavery. ‘The husband or his family often keep the woman’s passport. And they often never apply for her “leave to remain”. So even after the two-year probationary period, the woman still becomes “illegal” if she leaves her husband’s home.’

There is also the importance of shame and honour in South Asian society. Many of these women come from a rural, conservative past, where divorced women are cut off from society. Some may even be killed by their in-laws or their own families. Husbands and their families are sometimes taken to court for this, but most escape with no punishment. ‘My family gave up everything for me to come here,’ says Jasminder. ‘I could not go back there, and they do not have enough money to support me.’

Gupta agrees: ‘The woman is afraid of being sent back to her country. This causes problems of shame and honour at home. It is worse than death. With that level of control over someone, you can be violent, or you can use the woman as a servant. This is what a lot of families do.’

In the last 20 years, the Home Office (which deals with immigration issues) has improved the way they treat this group of women. In 1999, they allowed a ‘domestic violence concession’. This gives women with spouse visas the right to apply for leave to remain in the country – if they can prove domestic violence. But they had no right to get public money, so they could not get a place to live or benefits. ‘At that point, women faced total poverty and a second form of domestic slavery: a kind stranger could feel sorry for them and take them in – and then expects them to become a type of slave again in return for free accommodation,’ explains Gupta.

In 2012, after years of campaigning by women’s groups, Home Secretary Theresa May changed the rule: women on spouse visas who have been victims of domestic violence can now apply for temporary public funds while their immigration claim is processed. ‘No-one should be forced to stay in a violent relationship,’ said the Home Office.

In the dark

Hannana Siddiqui helps run Southall Black Sisters (SBS), a London-based organization which has been fighting for rights of migrant women. The legal changes are a very big victory, she says, particularly at a time when the rights of immigrants are being reduced. But there are still problems; not all women (with uncertain immigration status in abusive relationships) are protected. ‘Women who do not have spouse visas do not have those benefits. They could still be exploited and used for sexual slavery with domestic violence.’

Also, most of these women do not know their rights. Most have had some education, but they usually come from rural areas and do not speak much English. So it is difficult to ask for help.

Mandeep was sent to Britain from India in 2010. She arrived in Grimsby and she was controlled by her husband and mother-in-law, who lived together. Her mother-in-law said that Mandeep had to pay all the money the family had borrowed for the marriage. They took her wedding jewellery and sold it. Her husband took away her passport, and checked her mobile phone every day to make sure she did not call anyone else. She did not meet any of their relatives or friends.

The family made her do a lot of housework and they found her a full-time job at a factory. Her mother-in-law took her to and from work every day so that she didn’t make friends. At home, she cooked for family parties and was then locked in her room. At mealtimes, she sat on a stool in the corner of the room while her husband and his mother ate at the table. She was not allowed to use the heating or electricity while she was alone in the house, so if the others were out, she sat in the dark. About 10 months after the marriage, the family went away for a weekend, and left Mandeep tied up in the garage. It was the middle of winter. Amazingly, she survived until they returned and freed her. She had no money, no friends and did not know how to get help. She was desperate.


An expensive wedding ceremony can lead to a life of slavery. The cost may be a debt the bride has to pay. (Blend Images/Alamy)

Her work colleagues began to ask questions: why did her mother-in-law collect her salary, and take her to and from work? Suddenly, without warning, her husband told her to get out. ‘I didn’t know where to go,’ says Mandeep. She cried at work, and her manager helped her to find a place to live and make contact with a women’s group. They helped with her immigration case.

‘If their English is not good, these women rely completely on the family that brings them into this country,’ says Gupta. ‘They control her totally – she is not allowed to go out on her own – even to the doctor; not allowed to make friends or even to receive calls from relatives. They are afraid of the police, of immigration, of not having legal status here. I’m sure there are women who we don’t even know about because they’ve never had the courage to leave home.’

It can be difficult to prove domestic violence to the Home Office, particularly if it was not reported to police at the time. Because of the problems of language, isolation and fear of the authorities, most of these crimes are reported only when the woman escapes. So, out of 980 applications for leave to remain in 2008 and 2009, only 440 women were allowed to stay. 540 had to go back to their country.

But it is not all negative. Siddiqui says that with training from SBS and other women’s groups, the Home Office has allowed more types of evidence. Three times more women were allowed to stay (under the “domestic violence concession”) in 2011 than in 2006. The government thought people would take advantage of these freer rules, but it seems this is not happening.

About 45,000 foreign spouses – men and women – come to Britain every year. Many are from South Asia; most of them have happy lives. The women who suffer domestic violence and slavery are a tiny minority – but that does not mean that we should not report it. Domestic slavery is happening in modern Britain, and everything must be done to prevent this abuse.

(some names have been changed)

Samira Shackle is a journalist in London. She writes about social and religious issues.

As this article has been simplified, the words, text structure and quotes may have been changed. For the original, please see:http://newint.org/features/2013/11/01/prisoner-in-the-house/