“They got me engaged at 11 years old and that was it – I was going to get married.”

Journalism student, Sakura Singh, chose to write about Savera UK for her portfolio. As part of the piece, Sakura speaks to CEO & Founder Afrah Qassim, a survivor of forced marriage and a Savera UK Youth representative.

Savera UK was set up in 2010 due to a lack of support in Merseyside and Cheshire, particularly around cultural issues such as forced marriage, ‘honour’-based abuse, Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) and other harmful practices.

It is the only organisation that offers face-to-face support on these issues in Merseyside and Cheshire as well as seeking to eradicate the issues.

In the beginning, Savera UK started dealing with forced marriage as there was a group of young women (aged 13-15) who were being coerced into marriage before finishing school. The young people accepted their family’s decision of an arranged marriage but wanted to finish school beforehand.

They wanted to be able to question and explore these more, but when they were trying to find someone or an organisation to talk to about marriage and culture but there were no services locally. The young women were linked with Afrah Qassim through their school mentor, who then worked in the NHS (Mental Health service) as a Community Development Worker (CDW), leading on Women, Children and young people focusing on Black and Minority Ethnic (BME) communities.

Afrah Qassim, Founder of Savera UK said, “People don’t seem to want to talk about it.

“I had identified this and found that there was a gap that could be met by setting up an organisation that engages with communities, raises and promotes the awareness to those who may be at risk.”

Afrah set up a multi-agency group and held the first-ever conference in Liverpool in 2008 focusing on forced marriage.

It was apparent, there were gaps and Savera was established to fill the need to tackle culturally-specific ‘honour’-based abuse and harmful practices.

Savera UK today is nationally recognised, tackling, campaigning and raising awareness on these issues and supporting anyone at risk of HBA regardless of age gender or ethnicity.

When Savera started up they focused on women and girls but then received a message from a male who was a victim of abuse by his partner and was asking if they supported men from these communities.

Unfortunately, some boys and men can be victims of these issues particularly within cultures that have beliefs around LGBT being considered a sin.

Afrah said, “abuse is abuse” and can affect anyone and men from those communities would be even more reluctant to seek help.

While Savera has helped lots of women, they face a constant battle as many at risk are very fearful about coming forward.

Afrah said: “We have had many who come and they want our support but they walk away in fear of their family and causing family issues and problems and also they don’t feel safe if they report it, what may happen to them and how will they be supported.

“I know someone who took 22 years before she finally asked for help and escaped her marriage when she felt her children had grown up and were dependent and she was able to move and wasn’t worried about what her family or community would say.”

Savera UK believes that the way to combat the problem is through continuing to educate and engage with communities and work together to stand and speak up against these horrific practices.

Savera supports their clients in a range of ways: attending them in court, sorting their benefits, settling them into a new area and familiarising them with it. If they have children, they will help look for schools, register them with GPs, but also, they will tell Savera what they need.

Savera’s support does not have a time restraint on it, people can leave when they feel happy and confident enough to do so, but then if a risk reoccurs, they are welcomed back to Savera.

One woman, who wished to remain anonymous, has told her story. The assistance she received has helped her leave her previous situation and start a new life, she reveals all the support she received from Savera on all kinds of levels from helping her understand public transport to help her apply for university.

I spoke to a survivor that was supported by Savera UK:

“I come from a background of an old school. Even though it’s the 21st century we’re still very old school it doesn’t really change, they got me engaged at 11 years old and that was it – I was going to get married. I kept saying no but it didn’t matter to them. I had enough and I wanted to leave, so I left.

“I was in my own little bubble for eight to nine years I didn’t know what was going on in the outside world and then when I left it was such a shock it was a culture shock let me tell you.

“I literally got on the train for the first time with Savera UK’s help – I didn’t know how to take the train before, they helped me out the entire time and called me and told me which stop to get off at, and who I had to talk to.

“They helped me with my education as I didn’t know what to do because if you’ve never done anything and suddenly you’ve got all the choices in the world it’s very daunting.

“You don’t need someone to tell you what is right and what you need to do but just help guide you into the decisions you might think are right for you with their help and support, so yes they’re brilliant.

“I didn’t leave a relationship, I left my family. It was scary, my background culture says ‘I can’t shame them’ but at the end of the day it’s your life and they’re not going to live it for you.”

Savera UK also has a Youth Board that was established as part of the Savera UK Youth programme. They want to raise awareness to young people, so they believe young people should be involved when doing this.

After speaking to a young person who is part of the youth board, he told me that they work on different projects, such as art projects which include writing poetry and taking photographs.

I asked Malcolm if these issues had been discussed with him in college, he said: “Not really, the only basic one that we have talked about would be domestic abuse but the rest of the harmful practices we don’t really talk about them.”

Malcolm said: “I volunteer in a youth centre mostly every day and I think most of the young people are not aware of all these harmful practices, maybe only domestic abuse but the rest of the harmful practices, for example, FGM none of them know anything about it.”

The youth board created a piece of theatre to educate people on FGM, explain to them what it is and why it is not allowed to be done and the pain it causes.

Savera UK provides training and educates young people by going into schools; they will perform their FGM performance to schools and youth centres they are invited to.

Written by Sakura Singh