Radhika came to the U.S. as a refugee when she was 3 years old. At age 18 her family began exerting tremendous pressure on her to get married. Radhika refused, telling her parents that she wanted to attend college before getting married. In response, her father told her she had no choice and that a wedding was planned that summer to a cousin overseas. Alarmed that she might be facing a marriage she did not want to a husband she did not choose, which would likely force her to end her education, Radhika confided in her school counselor about her situation. Her counselor, unsure of how to help, told Radhika that this was a private matter best handled within her family. Feeling dismissed by the one person she hoped would understand, Radika decided not to ask anyone else for help.
Meanwhile, Sarah was facing a similar situation. Born and raised in the U.S., Sarah had just graduated college and was planning to start her career when her parents informed her that they had found a husband for her and that she would be moving to another state to live with him and his family after the wedding. Sarah’s older sister had tried to avoid a marriage two years earlier; however, their parents took away her cell phone and confined her to their home until she agreed. Wanting to avoid the same fate, Sarah reached out to local domestic violence agencies for support, but since she had not experienced any physical abuse or threats, they told her they were unable to help. Having been turned away by the only agencies in her area, Sarah felt hopeless and that no one understood the risk she truly faced.
These are case scenarios that we often see at Tahirih’s Forced Marriage Initiative. Individuals at risk of forced marriage face serious obstacles to getting help; those they reach out to may view forced marriage as a cultural issue or private matter best handled by individual families, or as a problem that only affects certain communities. However, a 2011 National Survey on Forced Marriage conducted by the Tahirih Justice Center found that agencies across the U.S. had encountered up to 3000 cases of forced marriage over a two year period, impacting individuals from widely varying backgrounds and faiths.
In addition, many front line responders, including counselors, advocates, teachers, shelter workers, and law enforcement, are also unaware of what to do or feel they can’t help in forced marriage cases. Less than 1 in 5 respondents to Tahirih’s survey reported feeling equipped to help victims, and we see frustration on both sides – agencies struggling to help and individuals unable to get desperately needed services.
In order to adequately reach and provide assistance to individuals at risk of forced marriage we must all recognize that violence is present in every community and that it can take many forms. Forced marriage is not a cultural or religious issue – the motivations behind forced marriage are complex and vary depending on each individual’s particular situation. Whatever the rationale, a survivor of forced marriage may face severe and sustained harms – including rape, forced labor, domestic violence, and deprivation of the right to education – and needs access to services, shelter, and support.
We need to be ready to truly hear someone when they tell us they are at risk of a forced marriage, and more importantly, we need to be ready to respond. At the Tahirih Justice Center, we are raising awareness about this hidden issue, collaborating with advocates, and coordinating a national response to the problem of forced marriage in the United States. We hope that you’ll join us.
This post was co-authored by Heather Heiman, Forced Marriage Initiative Project Manager and Senior Public Policy Attorney, and Casey Swegman, Forced Marriage Initiative Project Associate.
Heather Heiman graduated from DePaul University College of Law, where she received a JD and certificate in international and comparative Law. Heather joined the Tahirih Justice Center’s Washington, DC area office in 2009. Heather bridges Tahirih’s legal and public policy departments, and is the principal Tahirih attorney providing direct legal services to forced marriage clients. She also provides technical assistance on a national level, coordinates Tahirih’s National Network to Prevent Forced Marriage and facilitates the Forced Marriage Working Group.
Casey Swegman graduated from Georgetown University with a master’s degree in conflict resolution and certificate in Refugees and Humanitarian Emergencies. Casey joined the Tahirih Justice Center’s Washington, DC area office in June 2013. Casey provides targeted referrals and direct social service to individuals in the VA/DC/MD area, as well as technical assistance on a national level. She also works closely with the FMI Project Manager to build a national coalition, conduct outreach and education, and improve public understanding and response to forced marriage in the United States.
Tahirih Justice Center is a national, non-profit organization that protects courageous immigrant women and girls who refuse to be victims of violence through advocacy in communities, courts, and Congress. Tahirih’s Forced Marriage Initiative offers assistance to anyone who is facing a forced marriage regardless of age, race, class, gender, immigration status, nationality, sexual orientation, or religion. They partner with survivors and other advocates to end to forced marriage in the United States through direct services, education, outreach, and public policy advocacy. To get involved please visit www.tahirih.org.