In the first known Irish case, a woman forced to wed a stranger by her own parents who was rescued by the Irish and British governments talks exclusively to Ellen Coyne
Amala's wedding day was horrible. As her family gathered around her to help the beautiful 20-year-old bride get ready, she was sobbing.
"They were dressing me up but I was crying the entire time. It was traumatising," she said.
Amala, not her real name, is now 21. Last year she was taken to Bangladesh for a forced marriage. She is only able to talk about the ordeal now because she survived a dramatic escape.
In the first known Irish case of its kind, Amala managed to free herself from her 'husband' and flee halfway across the world with the help of her Irish boyfriend and both the Irish and British governments. Documents seen by the Irish Independent reveal how both governments worked together to stage an elaborate ruse to help Amala escape.
Amala endured a two-month ordeal at the hands of her 'husband' in Bangladesh, including sexual and emotional abuse. In an exclusive interview with the Irish Independent, she is calling for better awareness of the tradition of forced marriage among South Asian families and improved State support for survivors.
In late 2018, Amala was 20 and leading a normal life. She went with her family to Bangladesh, where her parents are from, for a number of weeks. They started talking about an arranged marriage. Amala was totally against the idea. She had a brother with her at the time of the trip. Amala believes she was able to return home without being married because her brother had objected.
"In South Asian families, they give boys a lot of value. Because he was with me, I ended up not getting married," she explained. Once she returned home, relations with her family were a little strained but manageable.
A few months later, Amala arrived home after meeting her boyfriend and was told that her grandmother in Bangladesh was very sick, and she had to go visit her immediately. The plan was for Amala to go to Bangladesh for a week, and then come home to Ireland. "But that never happened," she added.
Once she arrived in Bangladesh, things were very weird. First of all, her grandmother seemed fine. Her family were whispering a lot, and eventually Amala realised they were talking about marriage again. But she wasn't worried, she decided she'd just tell them no again and they'd leave her alone. "I thought, 'It's not going to get that bad, I'll get to go home'," she said. But then her wifi, her devices and her passport were taken away.
The tone and the intensity of the pressure to get married changed dramatically. She had no siblings with her this time, and felt very alone. She was isolated from younger family members, put in a room on her own for hours and told by her family that she was "too westernised". She was told how the family had heard that she had boyfriends in Ireland, and how she would never be allowed to go home until she got married.
"I was just bawling my eyes out. I remember when I finally agreed, in my head I was like 'OK I just need to agree to this, get married, go home.' And that was just not the case," she said.
During this time, she was trying to find ways to communicate with her boyfriend to tell him what was happening.
"It was very rare that I would manage to get wifi but when I did I would send him texts as fast as I could to give him quick updates. And when that wasn't possible, I would give my cousin letters that he could take pictures of and send to him. That was the only way I could find," she said.
I just wanted this to be over with, so I just said yes to the first guy
A week after "agreeing" to get married she was brought to see this man, a complete stranger. Amala remembers asking: "What if I don't like him?" She was told: "Well, you'll have to like him." It was made very clear to her that if she objected to the first 'husband', there would be many others. And she would have to meet all of them until she agreed to one.
"And I just wanted this to be over with, so I just said yes to the first guy," she said.
"During the wedding, it was horrible. I remember everyone came to see me, you know, before the wedding? They always come to see the bride and what she's wearing. It was horrible. And then, yeah, I got married."
Amala couldn't even speak the same language as the man. She hated spending time with him and would just sit there silently, saying nothing.
"The way my family made me spend time with him was literally by isolating me with him all the time. They saw that I didn't want to talk to him, so their solution was to stick me in a room with him," she said.
After she was married, she was put under pressure to have sex with her 'husband'.
But the man complained to Amala's family that she was refusing to have sex, who then put pressure on her.
"I was crying all the time, I didn't want to touch him or do anything. It would be very bad at night. He would just be forceful," Amala said.
"It was horrifying. I remember having almost an out-of-body experience. I wasn't even sobbing or anything, there were just tears as I lay there. I felt totally numb. This happened a lot, very frequently. Every day." Amala was also put under pressure to get pregnant. One day, her family sent her away to a hotel with her 'husband'. She was suspicious, and had a bad feeling her family were about to leave her.
I thought: 'This is it. I'm going to be here forever with this guy who is abusing me every single day.'
"Even though they were the ones that put me in that situation, they were all I had at the same time. It was so toxic," she said.
The next morning, she kept calling where her parents had been staying but there was no answer.
"I remember I was just screaming in the hotel, and I thought: 'This is it. I'm going to be here forever with this guy who is abusing me every single day.' I remember being pretty suicidal at that time."
Amala was eventually able to tell her boyfriend back home everything that had happened. He was devastated.
"It was hard being in that position, I felt there was nothing I could do. I could only just imagine what she was going through," the boyfriend said.
Amala's "husband" had found out about her boyfriend, and started sending him messages and pictures on social media. The 'husband' used to force Amala to send messages as well.
"He used to make me take pictures with him, he used to make me smile. And he sent them to my boyfriend as well. He made me send voice notes to my boyfriend. He made me say things like, 'I'm married now, and I'm happy,' and 'I want to have children and do my duties as a wife.' Obviously, my boyfriend knew it was completely out of character," Amala said.
I didn't feel guilt, I was just disgusted
Her boyfriend could hear in Amala's voice that she was emotional, and was likely being forced to send the messages. Her 'husband' would also use emotional abuse to try to control her.
"He started threatening to hurt himself, and he did. I don't know what kind of abuse this was. He'd cut himself in front of me, and burn out cigarettes. I was horrified. I didn't feel guilt, I was just disgusted. It was scary, it didn't make me feel anything for him," she said.
This entire time, Amala's boyfriend was trying to find a way to help her escape. They would try to communicate whenever she could get access to the internet, which was not often. Because of the time difference, her messages would often come through to her boyfriend when he was asleep. He started setting alarms every half hour throughout the night, determined not to sleep through any of her messages.
Amala's boyfriend and a mutual friend were distraught and extremely worried about her. They started doing whatever internet research they could, and the friend discovered the UK government's Forced Marriage Unit.
When they first contacted the unit looking for help, they were told the request would have to come from Amala herself. This was frustrating, as the forced marriage had restricted her freedom and use of the internet so it was almost impossible for her to do so.
Her boyfriend was able to use geolocation on Amala's Twitter page to prove where she was, and also provided social media evidence of her 'husband's' identity. But it wasn't enough. Eventually, he was able to log into Amala's email, and write to the Forced Marriage Unit on her behalf. Ireland does not have its own Forced Marriage Unit, so the UK government contacted the Irish Department of Foreign Affairs to alert them to Amala's situation.
The Irish Independent has deliberately omitted details of the tactics used to help free Amala in order to protect other women who might benefit from the same escape plan.
The day of the escape attempt, Amala only had a handbag with her.
"I remember leaving a lot of stuff out of it because I thought I would probably have to come back. I tried to not have too much hope, because I'd be too broken afterwards," she said.
She had no idea if the plan would work, but it did. She suddenly found herself in a large building, owned by the UK government, explaining to a woman working there who she was and what had happened.
"I could see it kind of clicked in her face who I was. That was the first time someone looked at me that way in a long time," she added.
"She gave me a hug and I started crying. It was so emotional. There were just lots of hugs and lots of people there. And they're just giving me a lot of support. And it was just the nicest thing to happen to me after so long."
I didn't know what was going to happen when I got to Ireland
Amala was covered with a jacket and escorted out of the building, before being placed in a bullet-proof car with tinted windows. She was immediately taken to the airport to be put on the next flight back to Ireland. The flight home was the first time Amala had ever been on a plane by herself.
"It was a relief but also, extremely scary. My parents probably didn't know what was happening to me. I didn't know what was going to happen when I got to Ireland," Amala said.
At this point, she still only had a handbag with her. She didn't even have a coat. After being in Bangladesh for two months, the spring chill in Dublin Airport felt freezing.
When she landed, a garda was waiting for her. He escorted her to a women's refuge in Dublin. Amala was starting from zero. She had no job, no money and no home.
She described staff at the women's refuge as "lovely".
"They gave me a little space to myself. It was very hard to settle back in because I didn't have any family support, I didn't have any money, I didn't have any clothes, I didn't have anything. It was very hard at first," she explained.
Eventually, she was put on Housing Assistance Payment to help her to find somewhere to live. She was also on Jobseeker's Allowance, but on a reduced rate of €203 because of her age.
"That was very hard to live on for a while. It was something, and I was grateful for it, but it was hard," she added.
One year later, Amala is now living with her boyfriend and his family and preparing to go back to education later this year. She has been working hard on her relationship with her parents.
"Since then, my relationship with my parents is still a work in progress. I didn't talk to them for a very, very long time. Months. Eventually, when I did, they were hard work at first. I really did have to educate them and make them see what they were doing, which took a lot of time. And it's sad that such a major event had to happen for them to realise how wrong they were," she said.
Since then, her parents have even met her boyfriend, a move she described as a "major turnaround". Amala is conscious that she doesn't want to paint her parents as villains in this story. The "tradition" of forced marriage is a complicated one, which is tied up in historic cultural norms and the huge pressure on young women in South Asian families to maintain honour.
Religion does play a role, but a big part of this is just tradition
"Being a girl and South Asian means you hold all the honour in the family. You're under constant prying eyes. It's essentially why they tried to marry me off, to save their reputation," Amala explained.
"These things happen a lot more because of tradition and culture, rather than religion. Religion does play a role, but a big part of this is just tradition.
"The reason my parents didn't hear me crying about how I didn't want to get married was because their parents never heard them crying about getting married."
It's understood that Amala's story is the first known case of its kind in Ireland. The Department of Foreign Affairs said that forced marriages here are "extremely rare". But Amala's fear is that her case is only known about because she managed to escape. The worry is that there may have been other women sent abroad for forced marriages which nobody ever hears about.
"I feel like there's more brown people in Ireland than there used to be. Obviously, the more brown people there are the more cases like this are going to start coming up," she said.
She believes there needs to be more services and resources to help people escape forced marriage and potentially start their lives over again once they have.
"These things happen, but people aren't aware of it. We don't hear about it. It's very taboo. There's no awareness," Amala said. "Because people don't know that there's help, they might not ask for help."