Laila, not her real name, recounts escaping from her parents, who had arranged for her sister Homa, 16, also not her real name, to marry a much older man against her will
Looking back, life could have been very different for me and my two younger sisters if our schools had taught us about our right not to face "honour" based violence and forced marriage, had understood what we were going through so that they could have properly supported us, and if they'd informed us about help that was available.
I was born in Iran. I felt lucky, as unlike some parents, my mum and dad's dreams were no less for us because we are girls. They wanted us to attend university and have careers. My dad was politically active and when I was 11, it had become too dangerous for us to live in Iran, so we fled to Cyprus. Soon afterwards my mother was diagnosed with Leukaemia. We were sent to the UK so that she could receive treatment. When I was 12 she passed away.
Everything changed when, within a year, dad remarried. My stepmother, who had been a child bride at 13, had strict ideas about girls and she brainwashed dad. We were forbidden to hang out with friends, she controlled what we wore and all three of us, even Maryam who was only six, had to cook, clean, and look after her two sons and the baby she'd had with dad. She was training us to be good housewives and we lived under constant threat that if we did not behave as expected, we'd be sent to Iran to be married off by our uncles.
Although I knew that one day a husband would be chosen for me, I was in denial, just hoping it wouldn't happen. I had other plans, I clung to the dreams my parents once held for me. I wanted to go to university. But studying was a continuous struggle; my stepmother would say 'you're a girl, what good will it do?' Once I faked a school note so I could study at the library.
Homa, my middle sister "rebelled" in tiny, typical teenage ways, by ripping her jeans and listening to music. When Homa was 16, she overheard our stepmother and dad making plans for her to marry a 40-year-old. We'd met him when we'd been taken to visit the family, but we'd had no idea we were being displayed as potential brides.
I wish could have trusted that our school would help protect us, but we'd never been taught about "honour" based violence or forced marriage and when I'd previously disclosed some of the oppression that I'd been experiencing, I had to beg them not to call my dad and step-mother in to talk about it, because we would've of been put on the next plane to Iran.
A few days later our stepmother and dad went out with the baby. We seized the chance to call the police. They noted that the house was immaculate and we didn't have any bruises that day. When we told them about the imminent forced marriage, they said 'that's your culture isn't it?' That really shocked us. They were supposed to protect us, but they were abandoning us.
Our stepmother and dad were due back any minute. They'd find out straight away that we'd called the police, because our stepbrothers, who were in the playground of their primary school opposite our house (where Maryam our little sister also attended), had seen the police car and so had our neighbours. As no one, not our school, nor the police seemed to understand the danger that we were in, we felt that we were on our own.
I grabbed a small bag, with a picture of my mum and my diary, and we ran over the road to get Maryam from school. One of our stepbrothers, who attended the same school, saw us going to Maryam's classroom and told us dad was outside. I told him to tell dad we were coming, then we ran out of the back door, through the woods, to the bus stop.
A family friend who'd fallen out with our stepmother allowed us to stay for a few weeks. We informed social services that we had Maryam, and they arranged for us to speak with dad. He told us to return to stop dishonouring the family, but did not fight for custody. After that social services left us on our own.
I took on the role of mum. We found a flat and to pay the bills, Homa and I each got two jobs. Shy Maryam blossomed into a confident girl and Homa took her A-Levels. With everything that had happened, I hadn't got the grades I'd needed, but I studied hard and secured a place studying Biomedical Sciences at King's College. Today I work as a trainee surgeon and have a PhD.
In spite of everything, we've survived. But I don't want others to feel abandoned like we did. This is why as, the Iranian and Kurdish Women's Rights Organisation's (@IKWRO's) Survivor Ambassador, I am supporting the #RightToKnow campaign.