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“In This Country?”: Forced Marriage is a “Serious but Hidden” Problem

The Tahirih Justice Center is one of the U.S.’s foremost legal defense organizations for immigrant women and girls fleeing human rights abuses such as domestic violence, sexual assault, human trafficking, torture, genital mutilation, and “honor” crimes. Since 1997, Tahirih has assisted over 12,000 women and girls.

One morning three years ago, they received a call from a family attorney who was struggling to help a teenage girl. She was a U.S. citizen whose south Asian-born parents threatened to beat her into submitting to a forced marriage. She’d taken the “courageous step of running away to a domestic violence shelter,” Tahirih writes in a new research report. “The shelter gave her temporary refuge, but was unsure how long they could keep her there. Her parents were threatening to sue the shelter, her attorney, and anyone else who tried to help her.” In the end, the girl was returned to her parents after children’s protective services declined to get involved, seeing it as a “cultural issue.” Tahirih doesn’t know what happened to the girl after that.

But her story and an increasing number like hers was “a definite catalyst,” says Heather Heiman, a Senior Attorney at Tahirih, to turn their attention to the “serious but hidden” problem of forced marriage in the U.S.—marriages that occur “without the full and free consent of one or both parties.”

As part of their new Forced Marriage Initiative, Tahirih conducted a national survey this summer of community organizations and leaders who may have encountered forced marriages, to get a sense of the problem. Over 500 agencies in 47 states responded.

Through this and other work Tahirih has identified 3,000 known and suspected cases in just the last two years.  And that’s likely the tip of the iceberg. Two out of three respondents on their survey felt that there were forced marriage cases not being identified in the populations they work with.

The UK estimated 5,000 to 8,000 forced marriages in 2009 alone. Some of these young women join the ranks of the disappeared, the shadow victims of globalization. In one year, 2,089 students were unaccounted for in 14 UK school districts, some of whom were “believed to have been…removed from education and forced into marriage overseas.”

The UK’s taken the lead in combating forced marriage since the early 1990s, when a number of highly-publicized murder cases involving forced marriages and subsequent “honor”-based violence galvanized a national response. The UK now has a dedicated “forced marriage unit” in law enforcement, a national helpline, and even has conducted overseas rescue operations to stop forced marriages in action. The law also provides for “forced marriage protective orders” in family court.

Forced marriage survivor Jasvinder Sanghera founded Karma Nirvana, a UK organization that assists victims. Sanghera escaped a forced marriage her parents had planned for her. She took action after one of her sisters, in despair at being forced to remain in an abusive marriage to protect family honor, set herself on fire and died.

Although Tahirih’s work focuses on advocacy for immigrant women, they hasten to add that forced marriage isn’t confined to any one religion or group. They know of cases involving 56 countries of origin—the majority coming from India (39), Pakistan (39), Mexico (28), and Bangladesh (14). The U.S. has its own history of forced marriage, including the “shotgun wedding.”

Imagine marriage on a spectrum, where the boundaries between consent and coercion are sometimes blurry. At one end is the modern romantic ideal of two individuals falling in love and deciding to marry solely on their own, with no suggestion or input from family, parents or community.  With arranged marriages, parents or community leaders might take the lead in finding partners, but these are not forced marriages, because the ultimate choice and veto power rests with the bride and groom.  Then there’s a forced marriage where, elaborates Heiman, “families use truly coercive tactics, force, or fraud and deception to ensure that individuals submit to a marriage.”

Sex trafficking for profit or prostitution would be the absolute other end of the consent and coercion spectrum of sexual relations. “There are certainly some cases of forced marriage that look like trafficking,” Heiman says, “because they have a financial motive at their core – for example, where a family arranges the marriage of their daughter to settle a debt.” But human trafficking differs because it’s usually for purely financial motives and engineered often by a criminal enterprise. The motives with forced marriage may be partially financial but are “also socio-cultural.”

Forced marriages happen for many reasons, including tradition, or to honor a contract between families. Sometimes the forced marriage enhances the family’s economic or immigration status. Other forced marriages are devised to enforce conservative gender roles or to protect family “honor” if a daughter is pregnant, or if a child is homosexual or questioning their sexual orientation.

“Parents often think they have best interests of their daughter in mind,” says Heiman, “however much their idea of what’s best for the daughter may be sharply at odds with how much anguish and anxiety the forced marriage is actually causing that daughter.”

Within forced marriage cases, parents deploy a complex array of coercion, fraud, force, violence, or intimidation. The most common tactics are:

  • emotional blackmail (120 respondents identified this as a factor in the forced marriage cases they knew of). Parents might threaten to harm themselves, or argue that the family’s reputation will be ruined if the girl resists marriage;
  • isolation (106). The family limits the daughter’s ability to leave home or go to school;
  • social ostracization (87). The family threatens that the daughter will be an outcast;
  • economic threats (84). The family threatens to kick the daughter out of the house;
  • threats of physical violence (78);
  • immigration-related threats–for example, threatening to have the daughter deported (72);
  • actual physical violence (69); and
  • Deception and trickery (61). The family might tell their daughter that she’s being taken abroad for a visit but it’s really to be married off.  
  • Respondents to Tahirih’s survey have seen other tactics, including death threats (40); kidnapping or forcing the daughter to travel abroad to be married (33); stalking the victim when they leave their home (38); holding the daughter physically captive and restrained (30); marrying off the daughter without her participation or knowledge, where the laws allow families to conclude a marriage (29); serious physical injury (25); forged marriage certificates (13); and the withholding of food and medical care (23 and 22, respectively). 

    The survey even revealed 10 cases where the victim was falsely accused of a crime or reported as a runaway to enlist law enforcement help to return them home, the police becoming an unwitting conspirator in the forced marriage.

    The costs of these tactics are dire. Survey respondents knew of 42 cases where forced marriage victims had contemplated or attempted suicide, and 13 had seen murder attempts related to forced marriage.

    Despite the anguish that victims experience—and the basic incompatibility between forced marriage and an enlightened, egalitarian, modern liberal state– forced marriages are falling through the cracks of U.S. law and the social safety net.

    At the national level there are very few laws or policies to help forced marriage victims. Current policies “still tend to preference parental rights over children’s rights,” observes Heiman. The federal system delegates marriage matters to the state, so it’s hard to address forced marriage on a national level.

    State law is tessellated. Every state has different laws on age of consent for marriage, family law, and domestic violence. A handful of state laws do criminalize forcing someone into marriage, but these aren’t really designed with parental forced marriage in mind. To Tahirih’s knowledge, no forced marriage prosecution has ever been brought under these laws.

    Age of consent laws usually provide exceptions to the minimum age for marriage if there’s parental consent, which offers no legal relief if parents are the ones forcing the marriage.

    As for social service agencies, less than 20% on Tahirih’s survey thought they were equipped to help. “We wouldn’t think to ask unless the client said something to tip [us] off,” said one respondent. Another said that agencies “may not know what questions to ask, may not feel entitled to ask, or know how to help even if they did identify forced marriage as a concern.”

    Just getting direct, unmediated access to women’s stories can be a problem. One respondent explained that in the populations s/he serves, “it is widely accepted that the male is allowed to speak” for female patients. “We are told not to rock the boat by asking her questions directly or asking to speak with her alone.”

    What about people on the frontlines of these girls’ lives—educators, doctors, neighbors, and community workers? How do girls sometimes as young as 13 just drop out of normal adolescent life?

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    These “frontliners” are especially critical. Tahirih notes that girls may “often only have one chance to reach out for help” and may well turn to a teacher or doctor. These people “just don’t know what questions to ask, and are not attuned to the signs,” says Heiman. Tahirih’s currently working on that kind of guidance as part of its initiative.

    Frontliners also struggle with cultural issues and hesitancy to violate cultural norms. “We were told that high school teachers and counselors in our area did not report girls who left school before age 16 to marry…because they wanted to be respectful of [that] culture],” explained one respondent. (Although it strikes me that deference to cultural values happens more often and easily on matters of oppressive gender relations than on, say, matters of money or property).

    Then there are the victims themselves and their reluctance to come forward, for complicated and heart-wrenching reasons. How do victims take action when their tormentors are also their protectors and their family? In this respect forced marriage seems similar to the psychological dynamics of domestic violence and sexual abuse.

    Some young women “don’t even realize that they have the right to say no under U.S. laws, so they just accept [forced marriage] as their fate,” explains one respondent. Many don’t think of themselves primarily as individuals but as part of a family unit.  “I think it is really hard for most of the young women I have talked to as they do not want to do anything against their parents or want their parents to get into trouble. They often sacrifice themselves to the parent’s needs and also to protect their younger sisters.”

    The protection of younger sisters comes up a few times. Young immigrant women, says one respondent, “do not want to get their parents in trouble …[and] are afraid of what will happen to their younger sister if they take  step (like running away or telling someone at school). They feel like they have no choice.”

    If one daughter tries to say no, she might fear that her younger sister will be matched with the groom, or that if she protests too persistently, that her parents might try to pre-empt that conflict in the future by “marrying off” a sister at an even younger age. The victim might also be aware that if her family’s reputation is tarnished, her siblings won’t have good marriage prospects.

    Among many other goals of their new initiative, Tahirih wants to empower victims themselves to come forward. These cases are a powerful reminder to me of how important it is to see women’s rights as human rights. But for now, forced marriage is a hidden problem within the already-shrouded world of domestic, sexual and family violence.


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