What do advocates need to know about forced marriage in the U.S.?

Monday, June 29, 2015

by Amanda Manes of the National Resource Center on Domestic Violence in partnership with the Tahirih Justice Center

What is forced marriage?

A forced marriage, by definition, takes place without the full and free consent of one or both parties, and typically involves force, coercion, and deception. Forced marriages can happen to individuals of any gender, age, socio-economic, ethnic or religious background. There are thousands of victims living in the U.S., some of whom were forced into marriages overseas, and others of whom were forced into marriage on U.S. soil (Tahirih Justice Center, 2015).

It is important to note the difference between forced marriage and arranged marriage, as well as to acknowledge that an arranged marriage can sometimes become a forced marriage. Arranged marriage is a common cultural practice in many areas of the world and involves the assistance of family or community members to select spouses. In an arranged marriage the right of both parties to choose whether or not to be married at that time and to the other person is respected (Tahirih Justice Center, 2015).

The reasons behind forced marriages in the U.S. are complex and varied. According to a Tahirih Justice Center survey, some parents may feel that a marriage is necessary to honor culture or tradition or to uphold a prior agreement between families, and many often believe that the marriage is in the best interest of their child. In other situations, families may force an individual into marriage in order to prevent him or her from engaging in unwanted behavior such as sexual activity before marriage or becoming “too westernized.”

What are some common misconceptions about forced marriage?

Many people may believe that forced marriage affects only a small percentage of women or girls from a few ethnic origins and cultural traditions. In fact, Tahirih’s survey found that individuals facing forced marriage in the U.S. are from very diverse national, ethnic, religious, and socioeconomic backgrounds. Respondents who provided information about the background of forced marriage victims that they had encountered reported that victims’ families originated from at least 56 different countries around the world (Tahirih Justice Center National Forced Marriage Survey, 2011).

While the majority of respondents who provided information on religious background said they encountered forced marriage victims from Muslim family backgrounds, respondents also encountered victims from Christian (particularly Catholic), Hindu, and Buddhist faith backgrounds, among others (Tahirih Justice Center National Forced Marriage Survey, 2011). Tahirih’s survey and its subsequent technical assistance in well over 150 cases, as well as the experiences of other advocates and service providers around the country, also confirm that forced marriage impacts men and boys, as well as women and girls, and can happen in multi-generational American families as well as in immigrant families that have more recently settled in the U.S.

Another common misconception is centered on awareness – specifically, the assumption that individuals are always aware that they have been forced into marriage. In fact, a significant proportion of individuals at risk of forced marriage are unaware of their rights with respect to marriage (SALCO, Who, If, When to Marry: The Incidence of Forced Marriage in Ontario, 2013). In many instances, the process of forcing an individual into an unwanted marriage can occur over a period of years, and can be normalized within certain populations or among individual families (Imkaan, 2012). In addition, coercion can be very subtle, and individuals themselves may at times feel ambivalent about the options available to them—issues that can be compounded by a lack of educational and financial opportunities (Sauti Yetu, A Closer Look at Forced and Early Marriage in African Immigrant Communities in New York City, 2012).

Finally, there are people who believe that forced marriage is not linked to gender based violence. To the contrary, forced marriage is rarely an isolated incident, but instead typically occurs within the context of other forms of violence and abuse. If a woman is forced to marry, it is likely that she will be subjected to forced sex, and to force or extreme pressure to become pregnant as well. She may also be exposed to domestic violence, including emotional and psychological abuse, verbal abuse, financial abuse and physical violence (Manavi Occasional Paper, An Introduction to Forced Marriage in the South Asian Community in the United States, 2011). In some communities, women and girls who are forced into marriage may also be forced to undergo female genital mutilation/cutting (World Vision UK, Exploring the Links: Female Genital Mutilation/Cutting and Early Marriage, 2014).

In what ways do forced marriage and domestic violence intersect?

Many individuals forced into marriage experience the same abusive patterns as victims of domestic violence who are not in forced marriages. Forced marriages are also more likely to become violent because the relationship is based on the power of one spouse over the other (The Advocates for Human Rights, 2010).

Many of the tactics used in forced marriages are used in abusive relationships.  Victims may be subjected to multiple, and sometimes severe, forms of force, fraud, or coercion in an effort to make them enter or stay in a forced marriage. Respondents to the Tahirih Justice Center survey reported a wide range of such tactics, including:

  • emotional blackmail (e.g., a parent may say the individual’s refusal would “kill them”);
  • isolation tactics (e.g., the individual may not be allowed to leave the home unmonitored or unaccompanied);
  • social ostracization (e.g., the individual may be told that if they refuse they will be shunned by their family and community);
  • economic threats (e.g., an individual may be told they will be kicked out of the house and find themselves homeless if they refuse); and
  • threats of physical violence or even death.
  • Because of the similarities and intersections between forced marriage and domestic violence, victims of forced marriage require many of the same types of resources and advocacy as victims of domestic violence, which can include emotional support, safety and relocation planning, shelter, financial support and tools for financial independence, and culturally-specific services.

    What are some of the resources and supports available to victims of forced marriage in the U.S.?

    Despite the growing evidence of a serious forced marriage problem in the U.S. as documented by the Tahirih Justice Center and several other community-based organizations [1], there are few specific legal protections in place for victims. Only a handful of states have laws against forced marriage, and many of the legal definitions are not broad enough and do not describe forced marriage as comprehensively as advocates and service providers do (Voices From the Frontline: Addressing Forced Marriage Within the United States, 2013). Additionally, civil remedies are often not available to victims. First, state protection order laws can be limited in terms of who can apply and what types of protections might be available. Furthermore, child victims face particular legal obstacles: they are often unable to leave home or stay in a shelter or with a friend, or even consult with an attorney or seek help from a court on their own. They also are often unable to get help from child protective services. Creative and persistent advocacy can make a difference, however, in supporting forced marriage victims, including child victims, to obtain protection orders or assistance from child protective services.

    Tahirih Justice Center is one of the nation’s foremost legal defense organizations protecting women and girls fleeing human rights abuses. Through direct legal services, public policy advocacy, and public education and outreach, since opening its doors in 1997, Tahirih Justice Center has answered nearly 17,000 pleas for help from immigrant women and children seeking protection from gender-based human rights abuses such as rape, female genital mutilation, domestic violence, human trafficking, honor crimes, and forced marriage.

    In 2011, the Tahirih Justice Center launched the Forced Marriage Initiative, a “national program working to stop forced marriages from occurring in the U.S.” The Forced Marriage Initiative provides confidential support to individuals from anywhere in the U.S. that are facing forced marriages either in the U.S. or overseas. Their services include risk assessment, safety planning, and local referrals to trained organizations. Staff members also provide technical assistance to advocates, legal and social service professionals, teachers, mental healthcare providers, and government agencies working on cases of forced marriage.

    In addition to basic information on forced marriage, the Forced Marriage Initiative website includes guidance for service providers; a searchable resource library including publications, webinars, books, audio/video clips; a “Forced Marriage Overseas Country Map,” where reports profiling human rights conditions, laws, and customary practices in 25 different countries can be accessed via an interactive map; and an archive of news reports from across the world.

    There are many ways to get involved with the Forced Marriage Initiative, including attending trainings and events; learning about Tahirih’s forced marriage policy recommendations; joining the National Network to Prevent Forced Marriage, a coalition of advocates and allies from around the U.S. dedicated to creating a coordinated national response to the problem of forced marriage in the U.S.; and joining the Forced Marriage Working Group, a core group of advocates and survivors with the energy, experience, and commitment to contribute deeply to efforts to address the problem of forced marriage in the U.S.

    In 2013, the Tahirih Justice Center launched “Honoring our Heartbeats: A Tour to End Forced Marriage in the U.S.” This tour was inspired by an expressive arts project entitled Heartbeats: The IZZAT Project, in which young South Asian women use illustration, writing and theater to explore and share community stories about resilience in the face of violence. The authors belong to the Pomegranate Tree Group, a non-profit organization “committed to healing justice.” A main goal of the tour, which took place from September 2014 through March 2015, was to spark dialogue about forced marriage in the U.S. Tour events in six locations across the country included issue briefings, training workshops for service providers, and a community forum featuring a panel discussion and a multimedia performance by the comic book authors.

    To address the limited legal protections and inadequate resources for victims of forced marriage, after extensive research and consultation, the Tahirih Justice Center developed proposed Policy Recommendations to Address Forced Marriage in the United States. These recommendations [2] outline a national action plan that includes the following:

  • Increase understanding of forced marriage as a form of family violence and abuse, and build the capacity of existing programs to assist victims
  • Dedicate funding for new forced marriage-specific resources and programs
  • Ensure access to civil protection orders for forced marriage victims
  • Strengthen state laws on the age of consent to marry
  • Implement safeguards in federal immigration laws for marriage-based visas
  • Ensure that criminal justice options are available to forced marriage victims
  • How have you advocated for forced marriage victims in your work?

    For more information on forced marriage in the U.S., please contact the Forced Marriage Initiative at Tahirih Justice Center at 571-282-6161 or FMI@Tahirih.org.


    [1] For additional research and reports related to forced marriage in the United States, please see Anthony Marcus (John Jay College of Criminal Justice), “Is Forced Marriage a Problem in the United States? Intergenerational Conflict over Marital Choice Among College Students at the City University of New York from Middle Eastern, North African, and South Asian Migrant Families,” The AHA Foundation: April 2015, available at http://www.theahafoundation.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/03/AHA_Forced-Marriage-Report.pdf; Vidya Sri and Darakshan Raja, “Voices from the Frontline: Addressing Forced Marriage Within the United States,” (Gangashakti: 2013), available at http://www.hks.harvard.edu/cchrp/research/working_papers/VidyaSri_VoicesFromTheFrontline.pdf; Chic Dabby-Chinoy, Asian & Pacific Islander Institute on Domestic Violence, with the Wisconsin Refugee Family Strengthening Project, “Abusive International Marriages: Hmong Advocates Organizing in Wisconsin” (2012), available at http://cdn.e2ma.net/userdata/1408433/assets/docs/abusive.international.marriages_apiidv_4.2013.pdf; “A Closer Look at Forced & Early Marriage in New York City’s African Immigrant Communities,” Sauti Yetu Occasional Report, Vol. 3 (Sauti Yetu Center for African Women and Families: December 2012), available at http://www.sautiyetu.org/resources-publications; Debjani Roy, “An Introduction to Forced Marriage in the South Asian Community in the United States,” Manavi Occasional Paper No. 9 (2011), available at http://www.manavi.org/documents/Manavi_paper9_pass-6.26.12.pdf.


    [2] Endorsed by the AHA Foundation, the Arab American Family Support Center of New York, the Asian Pacific Institute on Gender Based Violence, GangaShakti, Greater Boston Legal Services’ Relocation Project, Manavi, Nerlow Afriki, and Unchained at Last.