Hellesdon Sisters set up Freedom Charity for a world free of inhumanity to girls

Aneeta Prem and Vineeta Thornhill working in the kitchen at home in Hellesdon. Photo: Bill Smith

Aneeta Prem and Vineeta Thornhill working in the kitchen at home in Hellesdon. Photo: Bill Smith

A life-line charity for girls about to be forced or tricked into marriage, domestic slavery and extreme violence around the world is run from a Norfolk kitchen by two sisters.

Freedom charity bookmark and logo. Photo: Bill Smith

Freedom charity bookmark and logo. Photo: Bill Smith

The horror of slavery and desperation of women forced into marriage might seem a million miles away from the water-meadows of the Wensum. But in a house overlooking the river as it meanders through fields countryside close to Norwich, two women are battling to save girls from life sentences of servitude and abuse.

Aneeta Prem

Aneeta Prem - Credit: submitted

When three women escaped an alleged 30 years of slavery, in London last autumn, it was these Norwich sisters who took their first calls.

Aneeta Prem, and her sister Vineeta, run a charity, tackling the horror of kidnap, rape, abuse and female genital mutilation, from the kitchen of a house in Hellesdon. Aneeta and her partner and widowed mum live here; Vineeta and her husband and son live next door.

And although the evils they are dealing with might happen many thousands of miles away, they also happen to people from this country, and even from this county. 'Even in Norfolk, when September comes and the new school and college year starts, there will be girls who do not return, who will have been forced into marriage,' said Aneeta. 'If you put pins in a map for every case we have worked on, there would be pins in every county.

The sisters moved to Norfolk four years ago and although much of their work is based back in London, where they grew up, they deal with cases of abuse, coercion and domestic slavery all over the country.

Aneeta was just 17 when she first stumbled across the issue. Brought up in a loving, liberal home she became Britain's youngest black belt karate instructor. In one of classes a talented teenager suddenly stopped attending. Aneeta discovered she had been forced abroad and made to marry a violent stranger.

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She was unable to help this girl, but was determined to find a way of saving other children from similar fates. She began a career in police administration and went on to become a magistrate, specialising in family and youth law. She has supported child victims of forced marriage and dishonour crimes through her work as a magistrate and with the Metropolitan Police Authority, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office.

As she came across more and more cases she realised that although there were organisations working with victims in the terrible aftermath of abuse, there was no-one doing the kind of prevention work she was convinced could save lives.

Four years ago she set up the Freedom Charity.

'No-one seemed to be working in prevention,' she said. 'It is so much better to prevent it happening, you are stopping violence, rape, suicide…'

She says one of the most effective ways of preventing forced marriage is to alert the friends of vulnerable students to warning signs that something could be wrong.

'We aim our message at best friends,' she said.

They visit schools all over Britain to talk in assemblies and meetings aimed at helping youngsters avoid being pressurised or tricked into marriage, often accompanied by the local MP and police officers.

'We have a really proactive police force here in Norfolk. It seems a really good place to start new initiatives,' said Aneeta.

She is hoping that a visit to Hellesdon High School this month will be the first of many presentations to Norfolk schoolchildren.

Each child is given a copy of the novel, But It's Not Fair, which Aneeta wrote to promote the work of the charity. It tells the story of two sisters who realise that when a friend disappears abroad, she is in danger, despite what her family say.

The schoolchildren are also be given details of the Freedom Charity website and app, which include a potentially life-saving tick-list Aneeta developed to help students establish whether a friend might be in danger.

Thousands of people, including many MPs, police officers and social workers, have downloaded the app, which was part-funded by the Home Office and the Foreign Office, and read the book, which is recommended by the Home Office.

'These methods of child abuse can be stopped if people stop being so politically correct, and worried about offending others, and stopped using ridiculous language like 'honour.' It's not 'honour' it's 'dishonour' to force your daughter or sister or cousin,' said Aneeta.

Aneeta and family moved to Norfolk four years ago, falling in love with the county and their new home.

'I think Norfolk is a fabulously beautiful county and it made sense to base Freedom in a relatively safe place,' she said.

Aneeta has also worked as a property developer and the safe place she found is a historic house dating back to 1820, complete with stables, a water tower and a garden grotto. Aneeta and her extended family are gradually renovating the large and lovely property and she hopes to one day be able to host weddings here – weddings filled with love and promise rather than the fear and force she encounters through Freedom.

From this semi-rural, still semi-renovated Norwich base, she takes her message of horror and hope to schoolchildren, and top police, health and social services officials across the country.

Next month forced marriage will become a crime. Aneeta has been involved in pushing for the new legislation and will be chairing a major conference in London in July, with speakers including politicians, a police commander and national specialists in preventing female genital mutilation and forced marriage.

Official figures suggest that between 5,000 and 8,000 girls from Britain are forced into marriage every year, but Aneeta believes the real figure is even higher. And she said that the problem is not confined to a particular race or religion. Her own family is originally from northern India, close to the border with Tibet, but she said 'We come across cases from Turkey, Greece, America, South Africa, Europe… It's not a racial issue, it's a protection issue. We are working for anybody who hasn't got the capacity to say no.'

Her tiny charity, with no paid staff, was catapulted into the national news in the autumn when three woman came forward to allege they had been held against their will in a house in London for many years.

The person they turned to for help was Aneeta. 'They had seen me on TV, talking about Freedom and young girls going missing, and they said I had a face they could trust.' In fact it was Vineeta they spoke to first and both sisters played a vital role in gaining their trust.

Vineeta was an investment banker before training as a yoga teacher and still runs stress management courses and retreats, alongside her voluntary work with the Freedom Charity.

The charity relies on donations and volunteers and Aneeta said: 'I would love to encourage Norfolk people to embrace the charity. We have been wondering about setting up a charity shop. We have got to fund raise. It's something we are really rubbish at, but it is important because our work is saving lives.'

Vineeta's 19-year-old son, Rishi, who is currently on a gap year travelling around south east Asia, also helped out with charity admin after finishing his A levels at Wymondham College and his aunt has challenged him to bring up the issue of forced marriage with at least one person a day.

We are not just for girls and young women, she said, we work with boys too. It can be the young men who are forcing their sisters and cousins, in the UK and abroad, into marriage.

'We do this because I know we are making a difference. When we go into a school people will come up to us, or contact us afterwards. They are worried for friends, or even for themselves, and we can help.'