‘M’, an abused young mother of Pakistani origin, finally found her voice on 4 February 2016, in front of a large audience at the Houses of Parliament in London. Although struggling to hold back her tears and faltering at times, she nevertheless gave a moving and powerful account of her experiences of violence and abandonment that crossed the national borders of the UK and Pakistan. Her appalling experience has left deep emotional scars that have remained with her despite the passing of time.
M came to the UK in April 2000 to join her British national husband, following her marriage and the birth of her eldest son. From the outset, she was subjected to constant emotional and physical abuse by her husband and in-laws. She was not allowed to go out or talk to people outside the home. She could not speak English, did not know the ways or laws of the UK, and was completely isolated and severely depressed. By then she had given birth to twin girls, one of whom had a heart condition. In 2005, M and her children were taken to Pakistan by her husband and in-laws on the pretext of attending a family wedding. In Pakistan, M’s in-laws took away their passports and subjected M to further abuse and domestic servitude. Her husband then returned to the UK without her and her children, and two and half months later, they were thrown onto the streets by her in-laws who also returned to the UK. Homeless and destitute, M had no choice but to return to her parents who were reluctant to support her because, in her community, female abandonment following marriage is deemed to be a matter of great shame and dishonor.
Desperate to claim her rights to maintenance and property, M fought a seven year battle for the right to return to the UK with her children. She eventually obtained a visitor’s visa and in 2012 returned to the UK with her children. She now lives in north England but is still fighting for the right to remain in the UK.
There are three main forms of transnational marriage abandonment in the UK (a) a woman who migrates to the UK after marriage and is abused and abandoned or is forced to flee within this country; (b) a woman who is brought to the UK and then deceived into returning to her home country on some pretext and abandoned there, while her husband returns to the UK, revokes her visa and initiates divorce proceedings; (c) a woman who is married or left behind in her home country following her marriage, usually with her in-laws, and is never sponsored to come to the UK. All such cases can also involve abandonment with children or the separation of women from their children.
The study conducted in India involved interviews with 57 women who were taken back to their home country and abandoned there or were never sponsored to join their husband. 28 had been married to men resident in the UK, with smaller numbers from countries including Italy, Australia and the USA. About two-fifth of the women had migrated after marriage while the rest remained in India with their in-laws.
Most of the marriages had been hastily arranged, often within two weeks of the proposal, which left little opportunity for the bride’s family to ascertain the credentials of the groom. A majority of the women experienced physical violence perpetrated by their husband, in-laws or both. A third of the research participants disclosed sexual abuse perpetrated by their husband, while just under a quarter disclosed sexual abuse by male in-laws. A fifth of the women had been coerced into undergoing abortion(s).
By strategically abandoning their wives in their home countries, South Asian migrant men made it nearly impossible for their wives to participate in legal proceedings in the UK, thereby depriving them of their matrimonial rights such as an equitable financial settlement upon divorce, child custody and recovery of dowry or personal property (stridhan). For example, following abandonment, ex-parte divorce proceedings were frequently initiated by the husband, without the knowledge of most women. In some cases where women wanted to challenge their divorce or engage in legal proceedings, they could not obtain a visa to visit the UK or indeed any other country in which their husband resided, and in most cases did not have the money to mount a costly legal battle overseas.
In the last few years, the family courts here have begun to recognize and deal with this form of abuse, although limited to cases involving children. In Re S(Wardship) Guidance in Cases of Stranded Spouses  1 FLR 319, Hogg J set out useful guidance for such cases, but this does not assist the increasing numbers of single women rendered vulnerable by abandonment. Nor does the guidance have any teeth in the face of an increasingly hard line immigration system which constantly frustrates requests made by the judiciary for women to be returned to the UK so that they can engage in a meaningful way in children and other legal proceedings.
M’s personal struggle challenges us to transform our political understanding of and responses to the growing phenomenon of transnational violence against women.