Development & Aid, Gender, Headlines, Human Rights, North America, Poverty & SDGs

U.S.: Forced Marriages Still an Ugly Secret

WASHINGTON, Jan 26 2012 (IPS) - Two years ago, 40-year-old Vidya Sri decided to leave the devastating marriage her parents had forced her into nearly two decades ago. Alone for the first time, she began an earnest quest for support groups, women’s organisations or service providers who might help her in the healing process.

Instead, what she found was a shocking lack of awareness on forced marriages in the United States.

Sri came to the U.S. with her parents as a toddler and grew up in New York. Her Indian parents were quite traditional, especially her father, who was adamant that she not mingle with the opposite sex.

“My parents were very strict about family honour. It was (important) to my father that I remain untouched, unspoiled, pure and pristine because I would be of marriageable age very soon,” Sri said.

Her parents were outraged when she started dating a boy in college. She was sent to India against her will and told she could only return with a husband. Sri wanted to continue her studies and did not want to marry so young. However, under emotional coercion by her family, she married the man her parents chose.

She spent the next 17 years developing an addiction to alcohol and falling deep into depression for the sake of honouring her family’s wishes.

At 40, she finally decided to defy tradition and get a divorce. During the process, she came across the term “forced marriage” and her predicament became very clear to her.

“My sense of balance, sense of right and wrong completely changed and fell back into place…it was like a fog had lifted,” she said.

Today, as Sri gives speeches about her experience through her advocacy organisation Gangashakti, a remarkable number of South Asian women come up to her and say, “You just described my entire life.”

Even women from various other ethnic communities such as Hispanic, Chinese and African identify with her. Sri found that, though there is some basic awareness of the incidence forced marriages, there were very few people directly addressing the issue. Most people living in the U.S. believe that forced marriages happen only in remote corners of the third world and are shocked to hear about it happening in their own.

This year, says Sri, Tahirih Justice Center released the results of the very first U.S. forced marriage survey, finding about 3,000 cases in the country in the last two years. Heather Heiman, senior public policy attorney for Tahirih, said this number is “just scratching the surface” of the problem, as many victims are reluctant to come forward with their stories.

The practice crosses religious and ethnic boundaries and varies hugely from case to case. Complying with custom or tradition, honoring contractual arrangements between families, poverty and preserving family honour against accusations of promiscuity are some of the most consistent reasons.

Sometimes, a person thought to be homosexual might be forced into a heterosexual marriage.

Most women in forced marriages are not aware that their human rights are being violated, said Rupa Khetarpal, director of Cross Cultural Counseling Center at the International Institute of New Jersey, a refugee resettlement agency. Women and girls can be threatened with physical violence or even death until they comply.

Such was the case for a Russian woman who was beaten and starved by her brother when she refused a forced marriage. Other times, women are forced by subtle emotional abuse and overwhelming parental pressure.

Most forced marriages are discovered through screening for other forms of gender-based violence, like domestic abuse.

“If you ask women directly, ‘Were you forced to be married?’ they wouldn’t answer. Many women see it as a marriage they didn’t want, or weren’t ready for at the time but the word ‘forced,’ they do not relate to that,” Khetarpal said.

Service providers are just beginning to understand the terminology of forced marriage, she added. Agencies are becoming aware of forced marriages as a root cause of abuse. There is a dearth of research on this issue in the U.S. and absent proper statistics and hard data, funding remains elusive.

“It’s a vicious cycle. Once we get the data, it’ll help us move forward, not just to get funding, but also to try to create services that would effectively meet the needs of our clients because they don’t currently fall into any category,” Khetarpal said.

A serious lack of legal definitions have made it difficult for survivors, especially those who are underage, to seek help through the criminal justice system. There’s a disturbing number of underage girls being forcibly married to older men in the United States, Julia Alanen, cofounder and director of the Global Justice Initiative, told IPS.

Most of these cases must rely on ancillary crimes such as rape or assault to be prosecuted. The lack of legislation also affects how Child Protective Services can help underage victims.

Forced marriage has only been criminalised in about eight jurisdictions in the U.S., Alanen added. The U.S. Department of State follows the U.N. mandate and considers forced marriage a violation of human rights and a form of child abuse when involving minors. However, there are very few U.S. laws preventing forced marriage and there are no federal laws addressing the issue. In this regard, the U.S. falls far behind the United Kingdom.

“U.K. has been dealing with this issue head on for years. They’ve passed national legislation, they’ve created a forced marriage unit and a forced marriage hotline. There are training manuals for educators, healthcare providers, social services providers, lawyers and there are resources for both the advocates and victims. In the U.S., we have none of that,” Alanen said.

Two bills have been introduced to the Congress regarding forced marriage so far. But the International Protecting Girls by Preventing Child Marriage Act and the International Child Marriage Prevention and Protection Act only address forced marriages happening in developing countries. Such bills don’t even acknowledge that this happens in the Unites States, Alanen said.

However, advocacy around this issue might increase dramatically in coming years, Alanen said.

Heiman added that Tahirih is working on more surveys and developing a national coalition of advocates and survivors on the issue.

“I’m hoping once we get the data and start really focusing on this issue in terms of documenting the cases, we could potentially create some services that would help us to work with law enforcement and criminal justice system in securing support for these young women so that they don’t end up in abusive relationships and we don’t end up picking up after the damage has been done,” Khetarpal said.

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