Fighting forced marriage in the United States
Amina Ajmal, an American citizen, was held in captivity for years and forced into a marriage by her own relatives in Pakistan. She escaped and found refuge in an American embassy. As Ajmal was flown home to Brooklyn, her father, Mohammad Ajmal Choudhry, ordered the murder of those who helped her escape. Earlier this month, Choudhry was convicted of conspiracy to commit murder in a foreign country.
In addition to illustrating the violence and barriers victims of forced marriage face when they seek safety and justice, the case shows how victims of forced marriage can utilize the justice system to hold perpetrators accountable, even when crimes occur across borders. But too often, these cases are never reported to law enforcement or service providers—or, when they are brought to their attention, the authorities neglect to identify the cases as forced marriage.
While there is no universally accepted definition of what constitutes a forced marriage in the United States, the Tahirih Justice Center defines it as one that takes place “without the full and free consent of one or both parties.” Though awareness of forced marriage isn’t particularly widespread in the United States, progress is being made and strategies for identifying and tackling forced marriage cases are beginning to crystalize across the country. Here is some of what we know so far:
- Forced marriage is often conflated with arranged marriage—a cultural and traditional practice. An arranged marriage isn’t always a forced marriage, and law enforcement and service providers may mistakenly view forced marriage as a cultural issue not worth a response. Even victims of a forced marriage may label their experience as an arranged marriage because they aren’t aware of the language and framework to use to draw a distinction between the two.
- When direct services providers encounter forced marriage cases, they may not have the right tools to identify it and respond. The Tahirih Justice Center surveyed more than 500 agencies, who reported encountering 3,000 suspected and confirmed forced marriage cases. However, 67 percent of services providers reported forced marriage cases weren’t being properly identified in their caseload, so the number is likely much higher.
- Forced marriage victims may face multiple forms of violence. My colleague Vidya Sri and I conducted a study of more than 500 students and direct services providers , and found that victims of forced marriage were subjected to multiple forms of abuse, including emotional violence (e.g., coercion and intimidation), domestic violence (e.g., sibling abuse, intimate partner violence, in-law violence), financial and economic abuse, sexual violence, immigration threats and fraud, isolation and false imprisonment, overseas abandonment, and in some cases, murder.
- Victims may experience negative mental health and physical health consequences, and may require a broad array of services. According to a review of 52 suspected and confirmed forced marriage cases, victims asked for counseling, advocacy, self-help groups, shelter, law enforcement assistance, and legal services (e.g., immigration, civil, criminal). Those who knew of someone who was threatened with or in a forced marriage stated the victim experienced depression, suicidal thoughts, substance abuse and alcohol dependence, and in some cases, committed suicide.
As awareness of forced marriage grows, the federal government is starting to pay attention. The Urban Institute, in collaboration with the Tahirih Justice Center and with an advisory board comprised of community agencies, is researching the intersection between forced marriage, intimate partner violence, and sexual violence among young South Asian women and men in the Washington, DC metropolitan area. The Department of Justice-funded study will include interviews with people who have been threatened with or subjected to a forced marriage, as well as those who have watched a friend or loved one go through the experience. These voices of survivors and stakeholders will be used to develop a training manual for justice systems, educational institutions, and service providers on how to effectively respond to and prevent forced marriages.
Image from AP/STR. Pakistani women take part in a rally to condemn honor killings and victimization of women in society in Lahore Pakistan on Tuesday, Aug 10, 2004.