Mark Nicholls meets author, human rights campaigner, magistrate and Freedom Charity founder Aneeta Prem, MBE, to discuss her campaigning to save women from forced marriage and the horrors of dishonour abuse 

The girl was only 14 when she was taken out of school by her parents. The first Aneeta Prem knew was when the teenager failed to turn up at her karate class in London’s East End. 

For Prem, it was her first crossing with the scourge of forced marriage. 

The case, which saw the girl sent abroad to marry against her will, ended in tragedy. 

“I felt as though I should do something,” recalled Prem. “But when I spoke to people, they told me there was nothing I could do, and that the young girl had already taken her own life.” 

The shock of that stayed with Prem, ultimately inspiring her to establish a charity to help women affected by dishonour abuse such as forced marriage, female genital mutilation (FGM) and violence. 

Her campaigning - pivotal in making forced marriage and virginity testing a criminal offence - saw her receive an MBE in King Charles III’s first New Year’s Honours List. 

East End childhood 

Born in Bethnal Green, Prem remains proud of her cockney heritage. 

“My parents come from Himachel Pradesh in northern India,” she tells me proudly as we sit in the comfort of her atmospheric period home near Norwich. 

“I was brought up in a household of absolute love and nurturing where education, as far as my father was concerned, was the most important thing to help people out of poverty.” 

London life in the 60s contrasted sharply with what her parents Chandra Shekhar and Savita were accustomed to in India where her father ran his own college, the Republic College India to allow girls to continue their education beyond the age of 16. 

He wrote poetry and books, but found his qualifications were not recognised in England. 

“From being an academic and a linguist, he found himself working in a brick factory and very soon became ill in the UK. From having a decent life in India, my mother suddenly found herself in a laundry washing clothes, so it was a very different for them. 

“We had a two-bedroom flat in Bethnal Green where I shared bedroom with sister, but it was a very happy normal east end childhood.” 

Pure racism 

But when they moved to Chigwell, and a new secondary school, life changed again. 

“That was first time I realised I was brown,” said Prem. “I lived in an area where I was chased home by children from school. It was pure racism. When I sat in class other children threw rubbish at me and called me racist names. 

“I reported this to the teachers but they just didn’t care; what my dad had instilled in me about education went out of the window and I was not allowed to enjoy my education because of this racism in school that no-one wanted to do anything about.” 

Her family are Hindu brahmins but she found herself in a Jewish school where there was a Christian and Jewish assembly. 

“I said to the head teacher that I do not fit into either category, so I set up my own assembly. This is perhaps where my campaign comes from,” she added. 

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Karate clubs 

Prem had started learning karate when she was 12 and by the time she was 17 was the youngest black belt Asian instructor in the UK, running several clubs and was featured in a documentary, which attracted other local Asian children. 

However, she still feels guilt that she didn’t do more to help the young girl who disappeared from her karate class into a forced marriage, and suicide. 

During that period, her father had a heart attack and underwent bypass surgery, while her mother ran her own childrenswear shop. 

Prem devoted time to the household and did not do as well as hoped in her A-levels, but began work with a regeneration project in Redbridge, getting long-term unemployed into education, while continuing to run her karate clubs and then took a civil servant job with the Metropolitan Police. 

Justice of the Peace 

In her late 20s, she was invited to become a magistrate. 

“When the envelope arrived addressed to Aneeta Prem JP, my father was really proud. That was in March 2002, but sadly he died in the June. 

“I was very motivated to become a magistrate. I remember being stopped by the police in my car several times and I had seen a lot of my karate students being arrested. I knew people of colour who would tell me about being arrested or beaten up by the police. 

“I had a strong sense of justice growing up with a moral sense of right and wrong and I think I always wanted to go into law or medicine, so being a magistrate seemed like a step towards something that could make a difference,” said Prem who chairs adult, youth and family law courts in London. 

On joining the Metropolitan Police Authority as a magistrate member, her interest in dishonour abuse (forced marriage, FMG, and violence against women) increased with her taking on the lead role for London and the UK in these issues. 

Freedom Charity 

Having met numerous women who had suffered such abuse, she founded the Freedom Charity in 2010 with Lord Toby Harris. 

“The aim of the charity was to make forced marriage a criminal offence,” she explained. “At that time, in 2010, it wasn’t. Parents could force their children to get married against their will and there was nothing anyone could do about it. 

“People in government were telling me it was cultural, but it leads to serial rape and girls taking their own life. This had to be a crime, but I was going up against a brick wall in the Cameron government,” said Prem, who is now lifetime president of the Freedom charity, which works to protect children and young people by raising awareness of forced marriage in the UK and the associated problem of dishonour-based violence. 

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Working with schools 

Through lobbying and introducing MPs to victims, she gained the ear of politicians and in 2014, forced marriage became a crime in the UK. 

A key step was taking the work into schools and talking to young people so they “do not become the perpetrators of the future.” 

“We discovered the average age of perpetrators of forced marriage is a 22-year-old man; it is not mum and dad, it is the brothers who do not feel they are masculine and the only thing they have control of is their sisters and female cousins.” 

Aneeta went on to describe multiple cases she’d heard of sisters tricked to attend weddings overseas where they were the bride, becoming victims of serial rape. 

Writing books 

Prem wrote a book based on the experiences called But It’s Not Fair, and worked with head teachers and Ofsted to teach the subject of forced marriage in schools. 

She then began researching FGM, which affects 200 million women and girls globally, leading to her second book, Cut Flowers. 

“It is a subject no-one wants to talk about,” she added. 

The novels are aimed at children and young people. 

But It's Not Fair is written from the view of a young British girl, Vinny, whose friend almost becomes a victim of forced marriage. 

Cut Flowers centres on just two ordinary girls eagerly awaiting the summer holidays until their teacher gives them their summer homework. Little did they know that it would be the start of a lifelong mission to protect young girls all over the world.  

Not in my Name 

More than 75,000 copies of both books have been distributed free to schoolchildren across the UK by the Freedom Charity which is run by volunteers “and a massive amount of commitment.” 

With the Home Office and Department of Education recommending the book, Prem now visits schools to discuss the subject of dishonour abuse. 

But challenges remain. 

“People are culturally sensitive and frightened about tackling these issues and being called racist by bringing these topics up. But you can’t be because it is child abuse, culture has nothing to do with it.” 
The Not in My Name campaign against FGM has been an important step in getting young men to pledge that young girls will not be abused in this way “in their name.” 

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Changing language 

Prem believes the Freedom Charity has achieved a great deal, because it has forced people to talk about difficult issues. 

“But we are hearing about more and more crimes,” she said. “We were hearing about virginity testing, which became a crime in 2022.” 

Freedom has a helpline, books and an app launched with the government. 

“We don’t use the term honour abuse because there is no honour in this. We asked the government to change the language to dishonour abuse. 

“It is a very difficult concept for people to understand that you would force your daughter to get married, but we see it across every religion from Islam, Sikh, Hindu, Christian, Jewish, Mormon and in the travelling community too. 

“The majority of cases come from Pakistan, Bangladesh, India, southeast Asia but it affects girls from Africa and from all over the world in more than 90 countries. 

“We are talking about British citizens. We have had forced marriage cases here in Norfolk, often because it is not as highlighted in schools and at university here where you do not have that same cultural diversity, so it is being missed. That is why it is really important that we work locally.” 

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Prem, who moved to Norfolk 12 years ago, was made a Member of the British Empire (MBE) for her work with Freedom Charity. 

“The MBE is incredibly humbling, but it is certainly not just for me. It is for all the team that work tirelessly at Freedom Charity. It is for the people we have helped who have gone through FGM and forced marriage and dishonour-based abuse. 

“It is about all the people that have worked along the way to help ensure that these things are crimes, that the most vulnerable voices in society are heard.” 

In recent years, she has been affected by the debilitating and extremely painful condition bilateral trigeminal euralgia affecting the side of the face. 

Undiagnosed for several years, she eventually had surgery in late 2019, and more recently has become CEO of the Trigeminal Neuralgia Association to raise the profile of the condition. 

Future plans 

Prem lives in Hellesdon with her partner, mother and her dog India (a Shar Pei), and her nephew Rishi (who has helped out with Freedom Charity) and sister Vineeta Thornhill nearby. She commutes to London to continue her work as a magistrate. 

It was the level of crime and gang culture in London that was behind the move to a more rural area. 

“I thought it would be great to escape to the country. To have a better standard of life, have some clean air, get some balance,” said Prem, who became an Honorary Doctor of Letters from the University of Winchester in October 2015. 

“I don’t relax much. I feel I am on 24-hour call for both charities, but I do enjoy property renovation - doing the internal decoration on the houses, interior design. 

“My mum is my rock because I couldn’t do any of this without her support and encouragement.” 

Law changes 

The work with Freedom Charity has been hugely rewarding for her and successful in raising the profile of the issues and getting laws changed. 

“What has been rewarding is the amount of young people I have met and ensuring laws are changed so future generations are protected. 

“It is humbling seeing someone who has been involved in rescuing someone and bringing them back from overseas but we have a long way to go because there is still so much of this crime going on in this country and there are very few prosecutions. 

“There is still so much work to do. People put it done to culture, but it has nothing to do with religion and it is just wrong that this is still happening in 2023. 

“Will it be eradicated in my generation? I don’t know but I hope it will be eradicated in the generation of children that we are dealing with now and that they feel empowered to do something about it.” 

Find out more about Aneeta’s work at