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After a warm welcome from Tahirih CEO and Founder, Layli Miller-Muro, Forced Marriage Initiative Program Manager, Casey Swegman, approached the stage at Tahirih’s 2nd Annual Orange County Gala.

For the past six years, Casey has been leading Tahirih’s ground-breaking Forced Marriage Initiative, a program created to better understand the scope of forced marriage in the United States, raise awareness about the problem, encourage and empower individuals to seek help, and build a network of advocates to help individuals at risk.

It all started a decade ago when Tahirih made the decision to tackle child and forced marriage in the U.S. after discovering, through a national survey that in just two years there were as many as 3,000 known or suspected cases of forced marriage in the U.S. At that time, there were no laws that explicitly protected forced marriage victims or unconditionally protected child marriage victims. Girls as young as 12 have reached out to Tahirih for help. Girls facing threats of estrangement, physical violence, and death if they do not acquiesce to the marriage that has been planned for them. What makes these cases so heartbreaking is that the very people a child would normally turn to for protection, the people who are supposed to love them the most, are the ones hurting them and trying to force them into a marriage they do not want, to someone they may not know, when they are not ready.

“The fact is, every 3 seconds, somewhere in the world an underage girl is forced to marry against her will. She is likely to be deprived of education and to face ongoing emotional abuse, domestic violence, and rape. Think about it: what happens after you get married? One of the most common consequences of a non-consensual marriage is non-consensual sexual contact. Every 3 seconds. That’s 45 girls since I began speaking.”

The Forced Marriage Initiative has been able to accomplish so much since its inception in 2011 – responding annually to over 600 requests for emergency assistance and training over 7,000 professionals, including teachers and school counselors, social workers, nurses, detectives and police officers, and, of course, attorneys.

In addition, Tahirih set changing minimum age of marriage laws as a major policy priority and already, great victories have been achieved. A bill that Tahirih spearheaded in Texas with incredible bi-partisan legislative champions and powerful survivor advocates sharing their stories is having a huge impact on the lives of young girls in that state. Recent data shows that there has been a 90% reduction in child marriage in just one legislative session!

“It is individuals like Neha, who you are about to meet, that are the inspiration behind the work that we do. Neha was the first case I worked on when I came to Tahirih. She has always been brilliant and you know that the minute you speak to her. She is a constant reminder to me of what is possible when your heart is open and you have a clear-eyed vision of what you know you deserve. To welcome her to the stage, I’d like to share a quote that I believe captures why she is our Courageous Voice Honoree tonight: ‘Family dysfunction rolls down from generation to generation, like a fire in the woods, taking down everything in its path until one person in one generation has the courage to turn and face the flames. That person brings peace to their ancestors and spares the children that follow.’”

And with that, former Tahirih client, Neha Batool, greeted the audience and began to share how she escaped a path of forced marriage and violence and instead turned and walked towards justice.

“It’s February 20, 2013. It’s 5:00 a.m. I tiptoe down a dark carpeted hallway, passing my family’s bedrooms, carrying a 50-pound suitcase and a pair of tennis shoes. Heading down the stairs, as the weight becomes unbearable and my heart pounds against my chest, I tremble in terror that I might be seen or heard, that my shallow heavy breaths might awaken my family, and that my body might collapse from the emotional turmoil.”

From a young age, Neha began witnessing violence against women in her family and in her community. It came in many forms – verbal and physical – and was seeped in cultural norms and tradition. She knew that it was only a matter of time until she would face similar circumstances. And she was right.

At age 16, without her permission, she was engaged to be married. That engagement ended due to a family conflict, but several years later, her family once again insisted that she get married immediately following high school. Her mother felt, as a woman, that she could not advocate for her daughter.

“I saw myself in [my mother]. I imagined myself having the same conversation with my future daughters. I imagined telling them how much I loved them and that, because I am a woman, there was nothing I could do to help them pursue their dreams. I imagined chaining them, like I had been chained, to the confines of societal expectations. I imagined this cycle of oppression continuing in the numerous generations to come. I imagined my inaction contributing to the injustices and the inequality in my community.”

Neha confided in her school counselor, who allowed her to spend an extra year in high school without consulting the family so that Neha could gain financial independence and secretly apply to colleges. She would learn how to drive and speak English well and establish a support system that would prepare her for the day she would make the biggest decision of her life and flee from the certainty of forced marriage.

After almost a year, Neha’s plan to escape unfolded. With the help of her school counselor and the Tahirih Justice Center, she closed her bank account, sold her car, changed her email and phone and computer settings, and sought safe shelter at Second Story.

Over the next two years, Neha continued her post-secondary education and maintained two jobs for financial stability. She became a U.S. citizen and changed her name. She accepted internships with both Tahirih and Second Story, which gave her the opportunity to support the work of those agencies that helped her and sparked her interest in the field of mental health. She saw, for the first time, a future all her own.

“Throughout all these experiences, the turmoil and anguish of not speaking with my family did not end. I missed them every day. But I kept reminding myself that I had to break the cycle of violence. I had to find my voice. I had to have hope. I also knew that I was not alone. My mentors and advocates held my hand and crossed each roadblock and each milestone with me. They believed in me before I did, they guided me, comforted me, and encouraged me to find my voice. The voice that gave me the strength to finally reconnect with my family, after two years away. I called my mother first.”

Neha’s mother shared with her daughter the challenges she experienced raising six daughters in Pakistan. She said she received death threats for sending them to school, but she kept sending them because she wanted a different, better life for them. She said she often wanted to kill herself but could not bear to leave her daughters alone in the world. She said that even while encouraging their education, she also taught them to be silent and invisible so others would simply let them be.

“I began to realize that the lifestyle I escaped, the lifestyle that felt so cruel, intolerable, and unjust was the same lifestyle that my mother endured and survived with her six young daughters destined for the same. Entrapped within an oppressive society, with few assets and limited choices that felt right to her, she did – to the best of her ability – create a safe haven for us. I do not love her any less for choosing what she thought would offer me a better quality of life than her own. When we speak now, my mother says she is proud of me for taking the chances she could not and she is grateful to those who were there for me when she had neither the resources nor the experience to navigate those uncertain paths.”

Neha knows that without the support of Tahirih and other extraordinary individuals and organizations, she would not have discovered the opportunities and resources available to women like her, searching for a better life. Without that support, she and her family would not have reached the depths of exploration, understanding, and forgiveness that they have. Without that support, she would not have become the role model she is proud to be for her sisters and their daughters.

“It’s May 2nd, 2019. It’s 12 p.m., noon. I stroll down the sidewalk, heading to campus to propose my doctoral dissertation, Mental Health Impact of Forced Marriages. As the light spring breeze caresses my hair and skin, I take a deep breath, feeling as light as a feather. I reflect on my journey over the past six years. As my mentors, advocates, and family have embraced me with warmth and kindness, my sorrow and pain has melted away. In contrast to the earlier, darker days when the confines of the life that was planned for me left me suffocating, I now rejoice in the warm sun, blooming trees, and even the sound of traffic. My heart that once was numb is now rekindled with humility, compassion, trust, and love. Like a piece of sea glass, weathered by the complexity of my past, refined by my support system and the privilege of education, I have learned to empathize with the invisible pressures and concerns that we experience in our society. I, who once tiptoed in a dark carpeted hallway escaping a forced marriage, have now fostered new values and new identities, which inspire me to carve a path for others, in their fight for justice.”