FRIGHTENED Bangladeshi women are fleeing their Sunderland homes to escape forced marriages.
Concerns are growing after a number of newlyweds left their community, in fear of their new husbands.
According to Wearside Women in Need (WWIN), women have turned to them for help after being told to marry men who have been flown over from Asian countries.
The organisation has heard harrowing tales of women being forced to have sex and suffering mental and physical abuse at the hands of their husbands and family.
Claire Phillipson, WWIN boss, said: “This is not a cultural issue, it’s about human rights and the abuse of women’s human rights.
“It has nothing to do with religion or race or culture and everything to do with abuse.”
In one case, a woman who was born in Sunderland was told she was going to marry a man from her family’s village in Bangladesh. Two weeks later, he was flown over and the wedding was rushed through.
The young woman was forced to exchange her freedom for a life indoors but thought if she carried out the housework and cooking she would be left alone. When she refused to consummate the marriage, her family turned on her.
Ms Phillipson said: “This is not acceptable. Everyone affords the same basic human rights.”
The organisation fears the women they have helped in recent months are the tip of the iceberg, with many more women suffering in silence across the city.
But Claire hopes that by highlighting the issue, more women will find the strength to leave their abusive homes and start a new life.
She said: “If anyone is suffering I would say contact the police as they have specialist forced marriage units and they can get injunctions out. If you don’t want to, then contact us.
“It’s important to talk about it because there’s no shame in wanting to have some control over the rest of your life. What I would say to the men and other people in communities who think it’s acceptable, it’s not and legal action can be taken.”
Northumbria police officers are also trained to help women who come to them for help and can offer protection and support to victims.
DCI Gary Hetherington, of the Protecting Vulnerable People department, said: “We fully understand the problems and very difficult choices facing people who feel they are being forced or being unduly persuaded to enter into a marriage against their will or indeed after having freely entering into an arranged marriage subsequently want to leave the relationship.
“We also recognise that turning to police in such circumstances can leave them isolated from their families and communities and that some victims and potential victims may not be aware of the services that are provided, or have the confidence to come forward.
“We have specially trained staff who are experienced in dealing with such instances and fully understand the danger, risk and personal sacrifices.
“We work closely with other agencies to provide advice and support to victims and make sure that the right measures are put in place to safeguard them.
“The safety of victims and witnesses is paramount.
“WWIN is one of the many partners we work with to protect vulnerable women, however, it’s important to recognise that the refuge does house people from outside the area and while it’s important to highlight concerns, the rise in number of people seeking refuge is not necessarily indicative to a rise in Sunderland or the Northumbria force area.”
WOMEN forced into marriage are being urged to call for help or advice.
In December 2008, the CHOICE helpline was launched across the country aimed at victims of forced marriages.
It is answered by specially trained staff with all calls treated as confidential.
DCI Hetherington said: “Any offences reported to police are fully investigated sensitively and in the strictest of confidence to ensure an effective resolution and we’d urge anyone who is in the process of entering, or currently in a marriage against their will to contact the helpline.”
To contact Choice, phone 0800 5 999 365.