Forced marriages are generally associated with South Asian and Middle Eastern societies and also among immigrants in Europe and North America from these countries. But there is empirical evidence of forced marriages and child marriages occurring among Whites too.

The British paper The Guardian recently wrote a preview about a documentary film on the trauma of White American women forced into marriages. The film titled Knots: A Forced Marriage Story shines a light on the disturbingly few barriers against coerced marriage in the US.

The three women featured in the film, detail how intense parental pressure, teenage gullibility and isolation forced them into marriage with people who they barely knew, the preview said. Nina van Harn, raised in the fundamentalist Christian patriarchy movement in rural western Michigan was forcibly married at 19 to a man selected by her father. Sara Tasneem, was married at 15 to a 28-year-old stranger by her father when she did not know what marriage was all about. And 19 year old Fraidy Reiss was married off against her will by an Orthodox Jewish matchmaker in Brooklyn.

The Guardian said that the film brings out the coercion, confusion, breaking points and eventual escape through arduous divorce proceedings gone through by the young women. Strangely, the United States does not have a federal law against forced marriage.

Arranged, Forced and Child Marriages

Studies on forced marriages distinguish them from arranged marriages. However, if at least one of the parties in an arranged marriage does not consent to the marriage, it becomes a forced marriage. For arranged marriages, one or both partners may be subjected to cultural pressures, which may in fact result in limiting the free will to contract marriage.

There is a closer link between forced marriage and child marriage. Child marriages do take place not only among the traditional Asiatic societies but in the US among the Whites too. According to, in the United States, the minimum age for marriage is 18, but in most states child marriage is legal with a parent’s consent. Girls as young as 12 in Virginia; 13 in New Hampshire get marriage legally. It is estimated that nearly a quarter-million children as young as 12 married in the US between 2000 and 2010, the website says. “Shockingly, 91% of the children were married to adults, often at ages or with age differences that could have triggered statutory-rape charges.

Sino Esthappan et al., in their 2018 paper entitled Understanding Forced Marriage in the United States examine conditions and circumstances associated with forced marriage. Contrary to the experiences of legal and social service providers, the findings of the study indicate that more men than women reported forced marriage experiences!

Many respondents reported entering forced marriages while facing concerns over their own or their family’s reputation and threats of harm (to themselves or self-harm of a family member).A majority of respondents also reported experiencing psychological intimate partner violence.

Forced Marriages in Europe

In Europe, where there are migrants from the Third World in larger numbers as compared to the US, forced marriages appear to be a phenomenon associated with Asian and Middle Eastern immigrants, especially those from Pakistan, Bangladesh and India, which are all highly traditional societies with exceptionally tight control over the young, especially females.

The European Agency for Fundamental Rightshas issued a detailed report on this issuecovering France, Germany, the Netherlands, Sweden and the United Kingdom. It defines forced marriage as a marriage concluded without the consent of one or both partners, and therefore against the will of at least one of them. The report condemns this as a serious violation of human rights.

In the UK about 130 protection orders have been issued to victims of forced marriage every year since mid-2009. A German study showed that in 2008, counselling centers were approached 3,443 times on forced marriage. The UK Forced Marriage Unit, a joint initiative of the Home Office and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, provided advice or support to almost 1,500 people in England and Wales in 2012. The Swedish National Board for Youth Affairs estimated that in 2011 there were 8,500 young people who were worried that they would not be allowed to choose whom they wanted to marry.

In Sweden, a national survey of 6,000 people between the ages of 16 and 25, conducted in 2009 and 2010, found that around 5 % of them, or about 70,000 young people, did not feel they had the ability to choose whom they want to marry. Data collected from victim support services, show that of the 806 persons not older than 25 years who contacted these shelters, 248 persons (including 89 under 18 years of age) were at risk of a marriage against their will. The National Board for Youth Affairs  estimated that in 2011, between 250 and 300 people experienced a high or very high risk of being married against their will.

Istanbul Convention  

The 2011 Council of Europe Convention on Preventing and Combating Violence against Women and Domestic Violence (Istanbul Convention) obliges member countries to criminalize the intentional conduct of forcing a person to enter into a marriage.  There is, therefore, a trend to criminalize forced marriage in the EU, with seven EU Member States having introduced a specific forced marriage prevention law.

However, enforcing the Istanbul Convention is fraught with difficulties. There should be effective opportunities to annul a forced marriage. Further, EU Member States find themselves obliged to accept third-country norms which deprive victims of protection against forced marriage. This norm needs to be reconsidered.

Where the victim’s right to stay in the EU Member State depends on the spouse, an autonomous residence permit is a pre-condition for victims to seek the necessary protection from the authorities without fearing that the perpetrator will retaliate by withdrawing or threatening to withdraw residence benefits, the report says.

Reason for Forced Marriages

In the UK, according to the Forced Marriage Unit’s Multi-agency statutory guidance, some of the key motives for forcing marriages are:controlling unwanted sexuality (including perceived promiscuity, or being LGBT) – particularly the behavior and sexuality of women; controlling unwanted behavior; for example alcohol and drug use, wearing make-up or behaving in a ‘westernised manner’;preventing ‘unsuitable’ relationships, e.g. outside the ethnic, cultural, religious or caste group; protecting ‘family honor’; responding to peer group or family pressure;  attempting to strengthen family links; achieving financial gain; ensuring that land, property and wealth remain within the family; protecting perceived cultural ideals; protecting perceived religious ideals which are misguided; ensuring care for a child or adult with support needs when parents or existing carers are unable to fulfil that role;assisting claims for residence and citizenship in the United Kingdom; long-standing family commitments.

These cultural pressures are powerful and non-compliance creates its own set of traumas. But forced marriages also cause great agony to those caught in them. Therefore, societies and the State cannot absolve themselves of the responsibility to prevent the traumas. Education, counseling and legal action will have to be harnessed simultaneously to rid societies of pernicious social mores such as forced marriages.  



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