What is Forced Marriage?
The terms “forced marriage” and “nonconsensual marriage” are typically construed to describe circumstances where one or both of the parties enter into, or remain in, a marriage against their will, under physical force or psychological duress, or without free and informed consent. According to the United Kingdom’s Oxfordshire National Health Service (NHS):
A marriage becomes forced if there is any duress, whether physical or mental, to marry without free and valid consent. It is the perception of the individual under pressure to marry which matters when defining duress.
A forced marriage can be the result of force, fraud, coercion, or lack of capacity to consent to marriage. Lack of capacity can exist where one or both of the intended spouses is younger than the minimum legal age to marry (“early marriage”), is under the influence of a capacity-diminishing substance, or suffers a disability that renders him or her incapable of comprehending the nature and consequences of marriage (uninformed consent is not valid consent).
Is There a Difference Between a Forced Marriage and an Arranged Marriage?
Yes. Forced marriage is typically distinguished from “arranged marriage,” which refers to circumstances where both parties receive assistance from a third party (e.g., parents, family members, a marriage broker or matchmaker) to identify a prospective spouse, but the choice of whether, when and whom to marry is ultimately up to each intended spouse. The U.S. Department of State has denounced forced marriage as “a violation of basic human rights” and “a form of child abuse.” However, the State Department draws a bright line between forced and arranged marriages: “Arranged marriages have been a long-standing tradition in many cultures and countries. The Department respects this tradition, and makes a very clear distinction between a forced marriage and an arranged marriage.”
However, insofar as the distinction turns upon the presence or absence of full, free and informed consent, there is no meaningful difference between a forced and an arranged marriage where at least one of the intended spouses is a child. According to the UN Division for the Advancement of Women, “As a child under the age of 18 is not capable of giving their valid consent to enter into marriage, child marriages are considered to be forced marriages.”
Is There a Way to Determine Whether a Marriage Is Forced or Arranged?
In some circumstances, forced and arranged marriages can prove difficult to distinguish, even for the intended spouses themselves. In an attempt to illustrate the subtleties that can hinder people’s ability to differentiate between the two, NHS situates arranged and forced marriages along a consent continuum. For example, most would deem a marriage entered into under the following circumstances to be arranged, but not forced:
- Parent/s start to think about their child getting married.
- Parent/s begin to talk about their child’s marriage, perhaps suggesting or looking for potential partners.
- An agreement to marry is made. Whilst the families of those who are marrying are involved in the process, the final decision lies with those who are to be married. Arranged marriage takes place.
Whereas, for both victims and responders, the line between arranged and forced marriage may tend to blur where:
- Marriage is discussed, but with no mutual acceptance or rejection of ideas.
- There is pressure to marry, which may take the form of emotional blackmail or appeals to conform with traditional family roles and values.
But, few would contest that a marriage is forced where:
- Demands to accept a marriage proposal are accompanied by physical, mental and/or emotional pressure and violence.
- The people concerned are maneuvered into going through the marriage ceremony against their will.
Is Forced Marriage a Harmless Custom or a Harmful Practice?
The physical, psychological, and economic consequences of forced and early marriage can be devastating and enduring. Often, the bride-to-be is a teen or pre-teen girl, and the groom a significantly older man. The power dynamics characteristic of forced and early marriages leave many wives without the clout to negotiate for safe sex or to control the timing or frequency of pregnancy. Early marriage usually leads to early sexual activity and early pregnancy, which are directly linked to increased rates of infant and maternal morbidity and mortality, HIV/AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases. In many cultures, forced marriage signals the end to the wife’s formal education, leaving women and girls ill-prepared to support themselves and their children should they need to flee abuse or in the event that their husbands leave them. Some families resort to violence or even ‘honor’ killing to punish girls who are perceived to have shamed themselves and dishonored their families by resisting or fleeing a forced marriage. Other harmful consequences associated with forced marriage include servile conditions, isolation, rape, sexual assault, domestic violence, and suicide.
It is a well-established principle that every individual has a fundamental right to choose whether, when, and whom to marry. Numerous international laws condemn forced and early marriage as an intrinsic human rights violation, regardless of whether the victim consequently suffers any physical or psychological harm.
Who Could Be a Victim of Forced Marriage?
Forced marriage is a harmful practice that can impact any person, regardless of age, gender, sexual orientation, race, ethnicity, or religion. Men, women, boys and girls can all be victims of forced marriage. The fact that a spouse or intended spouse has reached the age of majority or the age at which a minor can legally marry with parental consent, does not guarantee that he or she cannot be forced or coerced into marriage against his or her will. Forced marriage is not limited to immigrant communities or developing countries. Forced marriage, child marriage and polygamy are traditions also practiced by certain U.S. faith-based and/or cultural groups whose members have been U.S. Citizens for generations. Nor are forced and early marriage customs exclusive to any one particular ethnic or faith-based group. Nearly every ethnic community in the world, and members of nearly every known religion, share a common history of harmful marriage customs. The first U.S. national forced marriage survey, conducted in 2011 by the Virginia-based Tahirih Justice Center, revealed cases involving families from 56 different countries of origin representing a diverse range of religions.
Why Do Forced Marriages Happen?
According to the United Kingdom’s Foreign and Commonwealth Office, the following are some of the factors and motives that can precipitate forced marriages:
- Controlling sexuality (particularly the sexuality of women and girls);
- Controlling unwanted behavior (e.g., alcohol or drug use, wearing make-up or behaving in what is perceived to be a “westernized manner”);
- Preventing “unsuitable” relationships (e.g., outside the ethnic, cultural, religious or caste group);
- Protecting “family honor”;
- Responding to peer group or family pressure;
- Attempting to strengthen family links;
- Achieving financial gain;
- Ensuring land, property and wealth remain within the family;
- Protecting perceived cultural ideals;
- Protecting perceived religious ideals which are misguided;
- Ensuring care for a child or adult with special needs when parents or existing caregivers are unable to fulfill that role;
- Assisting claims for lawful residence and citizenship; and,
- Long-standing family commitments.
Extreme poverty and humanitarian crises (e.g., natural disasters or civil strife) are additional catalysts of forced and early marriage practices, particularly in immigrant families that bear a heavy burden of responsibility for the welfare of extended family members in developing or conflict-ridden countries.
What Might a National Coordinated Response to Forced Marriage Look Like?
The United Kingdom has developed a highly coordinated national response to prevent and redress forced marriage, including a Forced Marriage Civil Protection Act, a dedicated government Forced Marriage Unit, a forced marriage e-learning Website for professionals, and practice guides for key responders, such as educators, health professionals, social workers, and police.
The U.S. movement to eliminate forced marriage is relatively young. The Virginia-based Tahirih Justice Center has established a National Network to Prevent Forced Marriage and a corresponding work group. Domestic legislative advocacy efforts are certain to ensue. A U.S. national forced-marriage and ‘honor’-based-violence hotline is scheduled to launch in September 2012. Legal services providers are beginning to incorporate a forced-marriage module into domestic-violence training curricula, and a New York-based community organization has organized community forums to promote frank dialogue and spur social change in immigrant communities from countries of origin where forced and early marriage are widely practiced. Non-governmental organizations (“NGOs”) are forming a North America chapter of The Elders’ Girls Not Brides campaign, a global partnership to end child marriage, and informal regional and national working groups are forming between Girls Not Brides signatories. Meanwhile, the U.S. Department of State is working diligently to improve the consular response to forced-marriage cases involving U.S. citizens overseas.
*These FAQs include excerpts from an article by GJI co-founder/director Julia Alanen, titled Shattering the Silence Surrounding Forced and Early Marriage in the United States, Children’s Legal Rights Journal, Vol. 32, No. 2 (Summer 2012).
 U.S. Department of State, Foreign Affairs Manual, 7 FAM 1741 (2005), Forced Marriage of Minors. Full text available at: http://www.state.gov/documents/organization/86822.pdf (last visited on July 16, 2009).
 U.S. Department of State, Foreign Affairs Manual, 7 FAM 1743 (2005), Arranged Versus Forced Marriages. Full text available at: http://www.state.gov/documents/organization/86822.pdf (last visited on July 24, 2009).
 Many contemporary advocates promote use of the term “survivor” in lieu of the term “victim.” Nomenclature carries powerful implications. Word choice can significantly impact the framing of a debate, reveal an author’s bias, and shape how a reader processes information. For example, a domestic violence advocate might prefer to use the term “victim” when pressuring legislators to pass a bill, but prefer the term “survivor” when addressing a victim directly. In criminal court, the prosecutor might elect to use the term “victim” to inspire empathy or outrage from a judge or jury. To underscore the gravity and criminality of forced marriage, I intentionally use the term “victim” rather than the term “survivor” in the context of this publication.
 It bears noting that some forced marriages involve persons that have reached the age of legal majority but have, nonetheless, been forced or coerced into a marriage against their will or without their consent.
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