Let me tell you what forced marriage in America looks like

by Fraidy Reiss | Unchained At Last
Thursday, 16 November 2017 12:20 GMT

* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

I was trapped in my marriage for 15 years before I managed to escape with my two daughters

For me, in the insular ultra-Orthodox Jewish community in New York City where I was raised, it meant being groomed from when I was a toddler to become a wife and a mother. It meant receiving a limited education that focused on religious studies and homemaker duties.

It meant understanding my value as a girl. The men in that community make a blessing every morning thanking god for not making them a non-Jew. Or a slave. Or a woman.

It meant I had no choice about whether to marry (that was a definite yes) or when to marry (that was going to happen as soon as possible after I finished grade 12).

It meant I was told I had the choice of whom to marry – but the so-called “choice” was limited to the potential matches the matchmaker brought to my family. It meant going on a limited number of so-called “dates” with my match, during which we were never allowed to be alone together or to have any physical contact. It meant I had a matter of hours, over a period of a few weeks, to decide yes or no.

It meant being terrified to say no.

It meant enduring a humiliating (and, I later learned, entirely unreliable) physical exam to confirm my virginity.

I went along with my marriage at age 19 willingly, even happily. I walked down the aisle to my execution wearing a big smile and what was perhaps the world’s ugliest gown.

Let me tell you what discovering that your new husband is violent looks like.

For me, it meant cowering in terrified silence while he punched his fist through the wall for the first time, in a blind rage, one week after our wedding. While he first threatened to kill me, only days later.

Let me tell you what being forced to stay in an abusive arranged marriage in America looks like. 

I had no reproductive rights ...

I had no financial rights ...

I had limited legal rights ...

The only way I could escape was if my family took me back. 

Let me tell you what betrayal looks like. My family refused to take me back

I was trapped in my marriage for 15 years before I managed to escape with my two daughters. And when I did, my family shunned me. My parents and siblings declared me dead.

Let me tell you what life after death looks like. It’s terrifying but liberating. I rebuilt my life with my two daughters outside the Orthodox Jewish community, and I founded Unchained At Last, the only nonprofit dedicated to helping women in the U.S. to escape forced marriages.

Through Unchained I’ve helped hundreds of women and girls, from myriad cultures and religions, to resist or flee coerced marriages. The girls have been as young as 14 – and that’s how I came to realize America has a significant child-marriage problem.

Let me tell you what child marriage in America looks like. Marriage before 18 is legal in all 50 U.S. states. Laws in 25 states do not specify any minimum age for marriage.

However, before children become adults, which is usually at 18, they are nearly powerless to protect themselves from an impending forced marriage or to escape from an unhappy or abusive marriage. Most of the girls who reach out to Unchained to beg for help end up trying to kill themselves when they learn of their limited options.

Child marriage also devastates girls’ health, education and economic opportunities and greatly increases their risk of being beaten by their spouse.

Unchained’s groundbreaking research showed an estimated quarter-million children as young as 10 were married in America between 2000 and 2010. Overwhelmingly, they were girls wed to adult men.

Let me tell you what a simple solution looks like. We at Unchained now lead a growing national movement to end child marriage in America. We’re working to pass commonsense legislation in all 50 states to eliminate the legal loopholes that allow marriage before adulthood.

So far officials in state after state have rejected the legislation, many of them insisting a teenage girl who gets pregnant has no choice but to marry – even if she was raped. But we keep pushing. Strong legislation is pending in three states and about to be reintroduced in two others.

We won’t stop until we end child marriage, and then all forms of forced marriage, in America. That’s a promise from this dead woman.