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Human Trafficking Center

Forced Marriage in the United States


Jun 2014


by Hyshyama Hamin, HTC senior associate

It was estimated that 140 million girls under the age of 18 – or 39,000 each day – will enter into forced and early marriages between 2011 and 2020. Forced marriage, identified by the United Nations as a “contemporary form of slavery,” takes place without the full and free consent of the bride and/or groom and is often coupled with varying degrees of pressure from family members and threats of violence. Contrary to popular belief, forced marriage occurs not only in South Asia, the Middle East or Africa, but also in countries like the United States. Despite its prevalence domestically, service providers in the U.S. are unable to effectively respond to cases of forced marriage due to a lack of a clear definition of the issue and failure to understand the actions and services required to ensure protection of victim/survivors.

In what may be the only available data on forced marriage in the U.S., the Tahirih Justice Center conducted a 2011 national survey measuring forced marriage in U.S. immigrant communities. Forty-one percent of U.S.-based service providers reported encountering at least one case of forced marriage in a two-year period, totaling as many as 3,000 cases. These numbers, however, do not account for forced marriages found within non-immigrant populations, such as those practiced within certain ultra-orthodox communities. The survey also revealed only 9 percent of service providers had a working definition of forced marriage and only 16 percent felt their agencies were equipped to handle such cases.

While many limitations exist among service providers, the U.S. also lacks marriage laws which address this issue. Currently, only nine states have legal provisions in which the term “forced marriage” is used. The purpose of these laws, however, is not to punish parents, relatives or kin who force a family member into marriage, but rather to prosecute criminal offenses such as abduction, prostitution and defilement. Furthermore, many of these laws don’t acknowledge the fact that perpetrators of forced marriage are often related to the victim/survivor. In Minnesota, for instance, the statutory language of the law protects persons under the age of 18 only “if they are taken without the consent of the parents, guardian, or other person having legal custody of such person.”

At the federal level, forced marriage is seen more as an issue affecting other countries than the U.S. The Department of State Foreign Affairs Manual, for example, offers some provisions for minor victims of forced marriage from other countries seeking redress. It allows victim/survivors to file criminal charges against spouses and/or parents and encourages authorities to identify relatives and family members “who would be sympathetic and could assist with travel funds and a safe haven in the U.S.” There are few policies, however, that assist U.S. citizens. Other countries, such as the United Kingdom, have well-established state mechanisms such as the Forced Marriage Unit, a joint initiative between the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office and the Home Office. The UK also has specific laws addressing forced marriage and regularly conducts studies in an effort to collect statistics and build upon multi-sector resources that help service providers recognize and address cases.

Drawing from the examples of other countries and particularly the UK, the U.S. can learn significant lessons in addressing forced marriage within its own borders:

  • First and foremost, the U.S. should acknowledge and understand the nature and extent of forced marriage on its own soil. The U.S. should conduct broad-based studies at state and national levels to explore how children and young adults — particularly from communities in which the practice may be more commonly observed — are vulnerable to and entering into forced marriages.
  • A clear government-issued definition outlining what constitutes forced marriages is required. It is imperative to establish provisions in state and federal law that clarify legal stances regarding forced marriage, legal marriage age and consent.
  • The U.S. should enhance anti-forced marriage efforts by increasing the availability of resources and establishing strong support services that are capable of identifying victims and survivors. Resources and services should encourage education, awareness-raising, and socio-cultural programs involving teachers, employers, religious and community leaders, and law enforcement officials. Such efforts should aid service providers in their ability to recognize the signs of forced marriage and help them pursue interventions once cases have been identified. Emphasis should also be placed on providing safe conditions and spaces under which those vulnerable to forced marriage can seek support.

*The views and opinions expressed in this blog do not necessarily reflect the position of the HTC

4 Responses to “Forced Marriage in the United States”

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