A British Diplomat's Mission Of Rescue

Women's rights activists discuss the situation of women in their country who are forced to wed. Video by Mary Jordan/The Washington Post, Edited by Liz Heron/washingtonpost.com
By Mary Jordan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, June 22, 2008

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan -- Helen Rawlins climbed into her Toyota Land Cruiser at 7:30 in the morning, off to rescue another woman.

The British diplomat settled into the back seat as she whizzed by the baking bustle of the Pakistani countryside: the women in colorful head scarves sitting in three-wheeled rickshaws, donkey carts piled high with mangoes, and elaborately painted buses where women sit apart from men.

Rawlins knew a tense confrontation awaited. Lately, she had been making a trip such as this once a week -- to help British women of Pakistani descent lured to this country and forced, sometimes at gunpoint, into marriage.

The British government views forced marriages, often performed after beatings or threats of violence, as a human rights abuse, far different from arranged marriages to which the bride and groom consent.

It is Rawlins's job to stop them. In an age of increasingly fluid migration, and aided by instant communication, the British diplomat works 3,700 miles from London to help women from her own country.

On this June day, the victim was 21. A friend of hers called a British Embassy hotline, and Rawlins then exchanged clandestine text messages and telephone calls with the woman. Now she was on her way to take her back.

"She was very, very clear she wants out of here," said Rawlins, looking cool in a proper navy blue suit, despite the near-100-degree heat.

A security agent with a face wrinkled by years and sun, his gun hidden underneath a flowing white tunic, followed Rawlins's car in a white pickup truck.

Rawlins's cellphone rang.

She was still more than an hour away from the woman's village when she received word of another emergency: A 17-year-old girl, born and raised in Scotland, had taken shelter in the British High Commission, as the embassy is known in this former colony.

Rawlins listened as the British official explained the details. The girl said she hadn't realized that her parents had brought her to Pakistan to marry. She wanted to choose her own life. She has a boyfriend back home in Britain.

Her mother, furious and wailing, had followed her. She was demanding to see her daughter. But the girl was refusing to talk to her, terrified her family might kill her. They had already taken her passport.

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