The Intersectionality of Forced Marriage with Other Forms of Abuse in the United States

This paper provides information and research on forced marriage in the United States and its intersections with child abuse, sexual assault and rape, domestic and family violence, stalking, female genital mutilation/cutting (FGM/C), and human trafficking. The research demonstrates that forced marriage is a serious but neglected problem in this country, and despite many advocates’ best efforts, survivors of forced marriage and those at risk continue to fall through the cracks of the systems and programs set up to protect individuals from abuse.

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The Intersectionality of Forced Marriage with Other Forms of Abuse in the United States by Casey Swegman of the Tahirih Justice Center Forced Marriage Initiative (February 2016)

In Brief:

This paper provides information and research on forced marriage in the United States and its intersections with child abuse, sexual assault and rape, domestic and family violence, stalking, female genital mutilation/cutting (FGM/C), and human trafficking. The research demonstrates that forced marriage is a serious but neglected problem in this country, and despite many advocates’ best efforts, survivors of forced marriage and those at risk continue to fall through the cracks of the systems and programs set up to protect individuals from abuse. For service providers and survivors alike, it is critical to recognize and understand these links and to connect the dots between the mechanisms of power, control, and coercion that may precede a forced marriage, and the forms of abuse that can follow it.

Key Findings:

  • In a 2011 survey, service providers in the U.S. reported encountering as many as 3,000 known or suspected cases of forced marriage over a period of just two years.

  • While not all forced marriage cases involve minors, the results of several surveys and studies have indicated that a substantial number of victims are minors. A child or teenager being forced into marriage by her family may be subjected to multiple coercive tactics that, taken together, amount to child abuse. In the case of a minor, the harms that follow a forced marriage also amount to child abuse.
  • Advocates and researchers have found that sexual assault and rape can be not only a consequence - but also a cause - of forced marriage.
  • The forms of abuse, coercion, intimidation, pressure, and fraud that are employed against victims of forced marriage are often indistinguishable from the forms of abuse and control utilized by perpetrators in domestic and family violence contexts. Such tactics are often employed both to force an individual into an unwanted marriage, and to prevent them from being able to leave the marriage after it occurs.
  • In a forced marriage situation, family members may use stalking behaviors as a tool of power and control and to create a severe sense of isolation and hopelessness. Stalking often continues following the marriage in order to restrict the survivor’s independent mobility and privacy, again with the intent of limiting her ability seek help.
  • While not all individuals who face forced marriage are also at risk of FGM/C, forced marriage can at times both necessitate and guarantee imminent FGM/C, and a survivor of forced marriage may have already experienced FGM/C in her lifetime.
  • Even though forced sex within a forced marriage is not a “commercial sex act” as defined by federal trafficking laws, arguably “human trafficking” can describe some forced marriage cases. Elements of forced labor may also be present, particularly in cases of servile marriage.

Conclusion:

Over the past five years, a more comprehensive picture of the nature and scope of forced marriage in the United States has emerged. We now know that many survivors of forced marriage have experienced harm that is overlapping with other forms of violence and yet unique enough to require additional skills and awareness from service providers and others in a position to assist. Specialized resources and strengthened laws and policies are necessary to address the unique challenges associated with forced marriage.

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