"Forced Marriage in America: many women don't know their rights, fear to claim them" Trust Law, Nov. 19, 2012
NEW YORK - To many in the United States, forced marriage sounds like an ancient and alien practice, something that might happen in remote corners of India or Pakistan, not in the heart of 21st century America.
But it is indeed occurring in the United States, and “it is a growing problem,” according to Manon DeFelice, executive director of the New York-based AHA Foundation, which protects and defends the rights of women and girls in the West from oppression committed in the name of religion and culture.
Hidden behind the closed doors of urban apartments and suburban houses around the country, hundreds of girls and women are believed to be forced into marriage every year, often too frightened to protest and coerced in ways difficult for authorities to detect.
For some girls nearing high school graduation, the summer school holidays are the most dangerous time of the year. A young woman is sent to visit relatives in her ancestral homeland and arrives to find not only that she’s been engaged to a man she’s never met, but that she is expected to sponsor a U.S. visa for him.
Another young woman is told that if she marries the man chosen by her parents, her ailing father’s health will improve, but if she refuses he’ll likely die of a heart attack.
Ensnared through familial deception, cultural tradition, emotional blackmail, and threats of physical violence and even death, women and girls like these are all victims of forced marriage. Often American citizens and the daughters of U.S. citizens or parents with legal immigrant status, they tend to be under 18 but can be of any age.
“I think Americans are completely unaware of forced marriage happening on our soil. We have a mythology about freedom and believe it applies to everyone here,” said Layli Miller-Munro, executive director of the Tahirih Justice Center in suburban Virginia, a nonprofit legal defense organisation which works on forced marriage and other human rights abuses affecting girls and women primarily from immigrant communities.
“It is far more common than we realise and more Americans come into contact with it than they realise,” she told TrustLaw in an interview.
Data remains scarce. Tahirih launched a Forced Marriage Initiative and conducted what is believed to be the first national survey on the issue in 2011. It elicited responses from over 500 non-profit, governmental and for-profit agencies working with various immigrant, ethnic and religious communities in 47 states and the territory of Guam.
Respondents identified as many as 3,000 known and suspected cases of forced marriage in just the last two years involving women from 56 different countries and diverse faiths, though many involved Muslim families.
Tahirih said data is difficult to obtain because victims are often reluctant to disclose forced marriage or ask for help. Reasons include reluctance to get their parents into trouble; fear of retaliation from their parents; ostracism in their community; resignation to the situation or ignorance of their rights under U.S. law.
Sixty-seven percent of the respondents felt there are cases of forced marriage in their communities which are not being identified, “indicating there is a potentially large hidden population of individuals at risk,” the report said.
“We don’t know the real scope, but we know this is just the tip of the iceberg,” said Ayaan Hirsi Ali. A Somali-born victim of forced marriage, former member of the Dutch parliament and founder of the AHA Foundation, she spoke recently in New York at the foundation’s Second Annual Conference on Honor Violence and Forced Marriage.