Schools save young Kiwis from forced marriage

Sehar Moughal and her three sisters (supplied)
Sehar Moughal and her three sisters (supplied)

Sehar Moughal was just 14 years old when she and her three sisters packed their bags and ran away from home.

"Our dad said to us, me and my three other sisters, that he's going to take us back to Pakistan and get us married," Ms Moughal says.

Her older sister was 15 and her younger twin sisters were 13.

They had spent their early years in Pakistan with their mother and had only been in New Zealand for about a year with their father when he told them of his plans.

They had been promised to their cousins, young boys not much older than they were. Boys they had grown up with and thought of as their brothers.

Schools save young Kiwis from forced marriage

A Moughal family photo (supplied)

"I think there are some things that you know are just wrong, you know, inherently wrong," says Ms Moughal.

"It was really icky for us to say I'm going to go back to Pakistan and get married to my cousin."

Instead of succumbing to the pressure, the four sisters huddled together to discuss their options.

"[We] asked each other, do you want this and all of us said there's no way we're going to do it."

They instead turned to their guidance counsellor at Aorere College who helped them get in touch with the Shakti Women's Refuge.

Schools save young Kiwis from forced marriage

Sehar Moughal and her three sisters recently (supplied)

The girls were placed into a safe house and eventually settled in a home of their own.

"We had no adult support at all and growing up as teenagers and going to high school and university, it was a really tough period," says Ms Moughal.

That was 10 years ago. They haven't spoken to their father since and their mother, who's still in Pakistan, only reconnected with her daughters a couple of years ago.

Schools save young Kiwis from forced marriage

A Moughal family photo (supplied)

Sadly, stories like Ms Moughal's are not uncommon.

Papatoetoe High School recently helped save a young female student from a similar situation.

"We're talking about pressure from the family for that forced marriage to take place, and I get the impression it was an immediate set of circumstances, it wasn't going to be in five or 10 years' time," principal Vaughan Couillault says.

The Shakti Women's Refuge says schools play a vital role in saving young students from forced marriages.

"For a lot of young people that come from homes where it might be quite controlling or restrictive, high school is one of the few places they can contact someone for support," says Mengzhu Fu, Shakti's Youth Project Coordinator.

Ms Fu says the problem is more prevalent than we know.

"People that come to Shakti, we think, are just the tip of the iceberg."

Schools save young Kiwis from forced marriage

Sehar Moughal and two of her sisters recently (supplied)

Forced marriages can be hard to detect but there are clues guidance counsellors and teachers can look for.

Warning signs include a dramatic change in a student's demeanour, a short-notice trip to their home country or an unexplained increase in the family's wealth.

Ten years on from their ordeal, Ms Moughal wants other young girls to know they do have a choice and somewhere to turn.

"If you are thinking of leaving and once you've left, it is scary, so you need to make sure you do have those support networks around you."

Newshub.

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