Why forced marriage?

Tuesday, 19 September 2017 08:00 GMT

In this 2009 archive photo a woman who was abused by her husband covers her face to prevent being identified by her family, at the Sisterhood Is Global Institute office in Amman, Jordan. REUTERS/Ali Jarekji

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What is the connection between forced marriage and slavery? At its core, slavery involves treating people as if they are property

When I was thirteen, even though I didn’t realise it at the time, I was incredibly lucky to be ‘suffering’ through high school and working at the local burger joint on weekends.

Not all girls are this fortunate.

Consider Shahida’s situation.

When Shahida was 13, her father arranged for her to marry a 45-year-old man who had promised her family money in exchange.

She was very unhappy with her husband but endured life with him for a year before running back to her home. Her father was very angry. He beat her and yelled at her to go back to her marriage, but Shahida thought that even this was not as bad as life with her husband. When she refused to return, her father dug a deep hole in the ground. He forced her into it and began covering her.

Shahida still wonders if he really would have buried her alive if the neighbours hadn’t heard her screaming and stopped him.

What is the connection between forced marriage and slavery? At its core, slavery involves treating people as if they are property. What can you do if you own a car or a mobile phone? You can drive it, you can sell it, give it away, trade it in, take it to the rubbish dump if you choose.

Shahida’s experience illustrates the connection between slavery and forced marriage only too well. Being traded for money like a piece of property. Forced to have sex with no regard to your health, physical or psychological, or other wants or needed. Being brutally threatened to be buried alive when you try to leave.

It has been recognised for more than 60 years that forced marriage is in law, a “slavery like” practice. It is also recognised that “marriage” can be used as a cover for other abuses such as forced labour and human trafficking. Yet too often, forced marriage is forgotten or overlooked by law makers intent on combatting these crimes.

This is a situation we want to change.

In 2015, world leaders made a global commitment to end forced labour, modern slavery, human trafficking and child labour through Target 8.7 of the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goals.

Measuring these hidden crimes is challenging, but it is only by looking at the best available data that we can begin to understand modern slavery. This is the first step towards identifying effective strategies to address the harm and, ultimately, eradicate it.

Today, the ILO and Walk Free Foundation, in partnership with IOM, are launching the inaugural Global Estimates of Modern Slavery. Importantly the Estimates include measures of the scale of forced labour – that is, labour that is taken by force or coercion – but also forced marriage. The Estimates, which are based on surveys, involving interviews with more than 70,000 people across 48 countries, suggest more than 15 million people are currently living in a forced marriage.  

Forced marriage is a crime that affects mainly but not only women and girls. Some 84% of victims were women and girls. An estimated 37 per cent of victims living in forced marriage were children at the time the marriage took place. Among child victims, 44 per cent were forced to marry before the age of 15 years. The youngest victims of forced marriage in the sample were nine years of age at the time they were forced to marry.

More than 90 per cent of all forced marriages took place in two regions: Africa and Asia and the Pacific.

There are many reasons for forced marriage. In some parts of the world, young girls and women are forced to marry in exchange for payment to their families, the cancellation of debt, or to settle family disputes. In countries with significant levels of conflict, they can be abducted by armed groups and forced to marry fighters, enduring all manner of sexual, physical, and emotional abuse. Forced marriages also occur in developed nations, with women and girls being forced to marry foreign men for cultural reasons, or in order to secure another person’s entry into the country. Once forced to marry, many victims are placed at greater risk of being subjected to other forms of exploitation, including, sexual exploitation, domestic servitude, and other forms of forced labour. Children are especially vulnerable in these situations.

Action on this issue is urgently required. Estimating the scale of this hidden crime is an important first step but this must translate to action.

Very few countries, less than 40 that we know of, have criminalised forced marriage. There is a huge gulf between total victims and those whose situation is being detected and reported. While not a perfect comparison, existing UN statistics on reported cases of trafficking for marriage suggest this type of crime is rarely identified – representing just 1.4% of the 63,000 cases of human trafficking reported globally between 2012-2014. Compare those numbers to our estimates of more than 15 million people living in forced marriage.

By including forced marriage in the Global Estimates of Modern Slavery, we aim to do just that – prompt urgently needed action on this crime, to ensure girls like Shahida can go to school and have a future of their own choosing, not be buried alive in a life of slavery dressed up as “marriage”.

Fiona David is executive director of global research, Walk Free Foundation.