DRESSED in a fancy new outfit, little Samina Shah thought she was getting ready for her birthday party.
Instead she was being married off — having just turned FIVE.
The Islamic ceremony effectively ended her childhood and paved the way for years of abuse.
Just as shockingly, this was not happening in a remote Third World village — but in a large town in the north of England.
Samina has decided to speak out after Britain’s Forced Marriage Unit revealed that last year the 1,468 cases they investigated included another girl of five.
There are thought to be another 6,500 cases that went unreported.
Samina — not her real name as she is too scared to be identified — told The Sun: “I was denied the right of childhood, play and innocence.
“When you are married at the age of five you no longer live like a normal child. I was deprived of my basic human rights.
“I’m genuinely shocked and horrified to hear that another little girl has had to go through this. My heart goes out to that child and anyone who is forced to marry.
“That is why I am sharing my experience, to reach out to those girls and young women. There is hope and light at the end of the tunnel.”
She went on: “I know that such behaviour is contrary to the teachings of Islam and must be therefore outlawed.
“There is no Islamic justification for forced marriage and doing it to a child of that age is not just wrong — it is criminal.”
Samina, now in her early 40s, rebuilt her life to become a successful business entrepreneur.
But she is still haunted by memories of beatings, brutality and repression.
Recalling her childhood wedding day, she said: “There was a lot of activity — a lot of relatives in the house. I was dressed up in an outfit mother-in-law had bought for me.
“My sister told me later that my mother-in-law had said, ‘At last, the beautiful girl belongs to me!’
“I don’t know exactly why I was married off at such a young age, but it was all to do with maintaining traditions and making sure we didn’t question anything.”
Samina was born into a typical Asian family in a close-knit community, keeping to the ways of their remote villages of northern Pakistan.
She was not encouraged in school work and was removed at 13.
Instead she was raised to believe a woman’s place was at home and the more she suffered, the greater the reward in Paradise.
On her 14th birthday a formal wedding ceremony was held, marking the bride’s transition from her parents’ home to the home of the husband.
At six the next morning, terrified for her future, she was bundled on to a plane to Pakistan.
She was told she would return to England with her husband when she reached 16.
She used to dread evenings when she would have to tearfully face the advances of her husband.
The marriage was eventually consummated against her will after she suffered a horrific beating.
After three months it was decided she should live under lock and key back in England until she turned 16.
Forced marriage in Britain comes under civil, not criminal, law. Many victims are sent abroad.
Those at risk can apply for a court order stopping them — or the marriage organisers — from leaving the country. Anyone breaking such an order can be jailed for up to two years for contempt of court.
Victims who do return to the UK find the marriage is not legally recognised — but whoever forced them into marrying cannot be prosecuted.
The Government is currently looking at changing the law.
Samina, who backs a change, remembers how she was not even allowed out into the garden.
She said: “I missed the sunlight on my face. I used to look out at kids playing and feel an overwhelming sense of envy.”
At the age of 20 Samina gave birth to a daughter. She said: “At that point I knew that there was no way that she would endure what I had been through.”
She became obsessed with cleanliness. Samina explained: “I felt like I’d been bottling up everything. I was scrubbing the house and then scrubbing myself, cleansing myself. I was trying to rub away stains of abuse.
“I’d been locked up and I locked my feelings up too.
“My husband insisted that I never reveal I had been married at such a young age. I had to say I was married at 16.
“But as my daughter went to school I got interested in studying again.”
Against her husband’s wishes she took GCSEs at college. After ten years she beat her obsessive compulsive disorder. And, at the age of 37, she left her husband.
She said: “It had got to the point where I wasn’t allowed to smile because smiling was said to be the sign of a loose woman, a woman who was flirting.”
Leaving was an incredibly brave move considering how it was deemed unacceptable for a Muslim woman to ask for a divorce.
Samina went back to her parents but ended up trudging the streets.
For the first time in the interview, Samina breaks down and sobs: “I was so upset, I thought everyone had abandoned me.”
Contemplating suicide, she started writing a text of apology to her daughter. She said: “Then I thought, how could I? She needed me — I couldn’t leave her.”
Samina found herself outside a church where she knew the priest.
She said: “I was so disheartened I wanted to abandon everything I had been taught in childhood.
“I thought the best thing I could do was to convert. Maybe being a Christian would give me peace.”
But the priest told her Islam had not let her down — people had.
He contacted a Muslim woman who gave Samina a bed for the night and a shoulder to cry on.
Eventually — with the help of friends, her daughter and one other relative — she got back on her feet and even made up with her family.
She said: “I stopped seeing myself through other people’s eyes. I finally realised I was not an inferior being. Deep down, I always had a belief that I would free myself.”
Samina now gives talks to women’s groups and is a mentor to youngsters.
She said: “Islam safeguards women’s rights, and I am delighted that I found the Islam that God sent down — not the one that has been hijacked by the jackals who misrepresent its true teachings.”
Girls’ lives must be theirs to live
By JASVINDER SANGHERA, Head of forced marriage charity Karma Nirvana
PEOPLE will be horrified that a five-year-old girl in Britain could enter into a marriage. Sadly, I am not at all surprised.
Alongside many others, her life was mapped out before her. Her life was not her own to live but for others to take.
Today there remain thousands at risk. Last week we delivered more than 2,500 postcards to Number 10. They showed 98 per cent of the British public say forced marriage should be made a criminal offence.
I’m not buying the idea that it should not be criminalised as it would just go deeper underground — it’s underground now.
We have a duty to bring it above the ground in the same way we treat domestic violence.
I would urge anyone who fears they are going to be coerced or forced into marriage to get in touch with us.
Or if they suspect that this is happening to a younger member of the family, then to get in touch too.
Our helpline is free and confidential. Please call 0800 5999 247.
8,000 reasons to bring in a ban
By PRITI PATEL Tory MP for Witham
THE most abhorrent aspect to this story is that this is current practice in Britain today.
Government estimates say there are up to 8,000 cases a year, most of them going unreported.
How can it be right for the very foundations of civil society — our police, our schools and community leaders — to turn a blind eye in this day and age?
Society’s abhorrence of such human mistreatment should be shown by making forced marriage a criminal offence.
Only then can we send out the strongest possible clear and unequivocal message to every community across Britain.
The Government recognises that the practice is wrong and has led the consultation into making forced marriage a crime.
The time has now come to do what is right by correcting the terrible injustices suffered by those forced into marriage against their knowledge and against their will by making this practice illegal once and for all