According to SwissInfo.ch, one more country is preparing to join the ranks of sovereign states that have passed domestic laws addressing a harmful marriage custom:

Switzerland will soon have legislation specifically banning forced marriages, a social issue involving violence and isolation which raises tough questions about [immigrant] integration… In Europe until a few decades ago, young people could be forced to marry for economic, cultural or political reasons. Today in Western countries, such compulsory unions are forbidden by law, but this does not mean the phenomenon has disappeared.

The United Kingdom was the first of 47 member states to adopt a forced-marriage law after the Council of Europe approved a resolution against forced marriages in 2005.  Unlike the UK’s civil law, the Swiss bill – set for Parliamentary debate this October – would criminalize forced marriage and carry a penalty of up to five years imprisonment.  The bill’s drafters believe that criminalizing the practice will empower forced-marriage victims to come forward and seek assistance.  Others are concerned that the threat of criminal and immigration consequences coupled with complex family and cultural dynamics could drive the practice underground:

For victims of forced marriage, the yearning for freedom often clashes with a sense of loyalty and family belonging, fear of physical or financial reprisals, or the real risk – for non-citizens – of being sent back to their country of origin, when their residence permit is attached to that of their spouse.

According to Anu Sivaganesan, a representative of a Swiss advice center that fields between 4 and 9 calls every week from forced-marriage victims, they’re only seeing the tip of this iceberg.  “The ones who come to us are the ones who have decided to rebel against decisions of their own families.  But how many more are there in the shadows?”  The center’s callers, primarily first- and second-generation immigrants, range in age from 13 to 25.  In Switzerland, forced marriage is not exclusive to any one particular faith-based group.  Sivaganesan told SwissInfo:

Among victims who come to our organisation, you will find Christians and Jews, Kurdish or Turkish Alevi Muslims, Tamil Hindus and Albanian or Kosovar Muslims… The problem of forced marriages needs to be seen for what it is: a violation of human rights, and not [an excuse for] some new strategy to drive foreigners from Switzerland.

A Swiss forced-marriage study suggests that system actors have considerable difficulty differentiating between forced and arranged marriages, or distinguishing forced marriage cases from cases of domestic violence and human trafficking.  GJI co-founder and director, Julia Alanen, told The Baltimore Sun:

Forced marriage cases implicate conflicting rights, for example, a group’s right to preserve its cultural traditions and practices versus the right of every individual to be free from domestic violence, rape and trafficking and the right to choose freely whether to marry, when to marry and who to marry. Anti-forced-marriage instruments typically draw a bright line between respecting a cultural group’s right to perpetuate the practice of arranged (mutually consensual) marriages and [the proscribed] forced (nonconsensual) marriages; in reality, that line is easily blurred.

In response to those who oppose state intervention into what they view as a private family affair, the SwissInfo article’s author invokes the words of anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss: “Marriage is not, has never been and cannot be a private matter.”

READ MORE: Forced marriage “needs to be depoliticised”, by Stefania Summermatter, SwissInfo.ch (July 17, 2012).

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