United States: Forced Marriages Prevalent, Unacknowledged
Wednesday, February 1, 2012 11:55 AM

A new study by the Tahirih Justice Center indicates that forced marriage is more common in the United States than many recognize; approximately 3,000 cases have occurred within the last two years. Also, the practice is not limited to any particular religious or ethnic group. According to Heather Heiman, senior public policy attorney for Tahirih, the reported number is believed to be well below the actual scope of the problem. She noted that many victims are hesitant to come forward, and that accurate statistics are difficult to obtain because forced marriage is often only discovered through screening for other forms of gender-based violence. Moreover, according to Rupa Khetarpal, director of Cross Cultural Counseling Center at the International Institute of New Jersey, women and girls are often threatened with violence if they do not submit to arranged marriages and forced marriage may be a cause of domestic violence in many cases.

Yet, according to Julia Alanen, cofounder and director of the Global Justice Initiative, only eight U.S. jurisdictions have specifically criminalized forced marriage and there is no federal law addressing it. This is despite recognition by the U.S. State Department that forced marriage is a violation of human rights and, when involving a minor, a form of child abuse. Advocates point out that due to a lack of legal definitions, victims often have a difficult time seeking redress through the criminal justice system. Two recent bills introduced to Congress regarding forced marriage, the International Protecting Girls by Preventing Child Marriage Act and the Child Marriage Violates the Human Rights of Girls Act, don’t acknowledge that it happens within the United States.

Tahirih is currently working on more surveys and is developing a national coalition of advocates and survivors to raise awareness of the issue. Advocates hope that increased attention will lead to funding for victim’s services and training for social service providers, lawyers, and law enforcement officers.

Compiled from: Panagoda, Charundi, Forced Marriage Still an Ugly Secret, Inter-Press Service (26 January 2012).