Child sex abuse victims ‘married off’ to abusers to avoid shame, inquiry told

Religious leaders in South Asian communities are failing child sexual abuse victims as their cultures are “shrouded in secrecy, shame and denial”, an inquiry has heard.

The Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse (IICSA) heard how victims of sexual abuse in minority communities are sometimes married off to their abusers to protect the reputation of their family and the community.

The inquiry heard evidence as part of the child protection in religious organisations and settings investigation branch of the probe.

On Friday, evidence was heard from organisations which support victims of gender-related violence in black, Asian, and minority ethnic (BAME) communities, particularly from South Asian countries.

Giving evidence via conference call, Pragna Patel, director of Southall Black Sisters (SBS), said attempts to engage with religious leaders have been difficult, as some were reluctant to signpost SBS services to their congregations.

Her views were shared by Natasha Rattu, executive director of Karma Nirvana, a Leeds-based charity supporting victims of honour-based violence and forced marriage.

“We understand they would be far more effective at drumming home the messages that we want to bring into the community than we are,” Ms Rattu told the inquiry.

“There’s a real reluctance in doing that.”

Sadia Hameed, director of Gloucestershire Sisters, said affiliation with religious organisations would make it “uncomfortable” for victims to come forward.

All three said there was an expectation in some South Asian communities that victims be married off to their abuser to hide the sexual abuse that has taken place.

When asked why victims did not report abuse to religious organisations, Ms Hameed said there was a lack of confidentiality and a fear that the information could leak into the community, where faith leaders are “intertwined” with local businesses and groups.

Ms Rattu said: “Religious institutions are not necessarily gate-openers for children to openly disclose and talk about abuse, they are gatekeepers to hide the abuse and keep it under the carpet, so as not to affect the reputation and status of a family, individual or community.”

Her concerns were echoed by Ms Patel, as she explained how mediation is “extensively practised” in South Asian communities, where a community elder, usually a religious figure, would bring the victim and abuser together to reach an informal settlement.

“What we are talking about here are cultures that are shrouded in secrecy, shame and denial,” Ms Patel said.

On the issue of child marriages, Ms Rattu said religious marriages, which are not registered, acted as a “breeding ground” for sexual abuse of under 16s.

She said: “There’s an incredible onus on the child to bring those cases forward, because these cases are invisible, there’s no registering or regulation of those marriages.”

Evidence was heard of the use of exorcisms to justify child sexual abuse, where faith healings and rituals are practised on people to “get them back in line”.

Ms Patel referred to one case where a man purporting to be a religious scholar made a young girl have sex with another man while he watched “in order to divest her of her homosexual feelings”.

The latest phase of the IICSA is looking at how child protection is handled in religious organisations and settings in England and Wales.

These include British Judaism, Islam, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Baptists, Methodists, Sikhism, Hinduism, Buddhism and non-conformist Christian denominations.

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