Every year, fourteen million girls and women are forced to marry against their will. To examine this issue, the Domestic Violence Clinic and Women & the Law Program at American University Washington College of Law hosted panelists from the Tahirih Justice Center, the Barbra Schliffer Commemorative Clinic, and the Global Justice Initiative to discuss the hidden problem of forced marriage in the United States and Canada. The practice of forcing girls into marriages is not limited to immigrant communities. The panel shared stories of survivors and discussed the difficult question of criminalizing forced marriages in the U.S. and Canada.

Forced marriage is a multi-faceted, complex form of violence against women. Forced marriage happens to girls from every faith and race, when their right to choose if, when, and whom to marry is taken away. While many nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and service providers have different definitions of forced marriage, generally a marriage in which one or both parties did not freely consent is considered forced. The right to choose when, if, and whom to marry is an international human right under Article 16 of the Convention for the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women.  Families, and often entire communities, pressure girls and women into marriages. Often threats, violence, manipulation, and kidnapping occur to force her to marry against her will. One survivor said, “I knew that if I refused this marriage, my little sister would be sent to the altar in my place.” Once married, women and girls in forced marriages are especially vulnerable to other types of violence including rape, sexual assault, forced pregnancy, domestic violence and verbal and emotional abuse. Honor-related violence is also connected to forced marriages.

Recent research on forced marriages, conducted by the Tahirih Justice Center, surveyed 500 social service providers in forty-seven states. Respondents reported 3,000 cases of known or suspected cases of forced in marriages in just two years. Sometimes the marriages are not legally recognized but instead the girl’s entire community recognizes the marriage as valid; both scenarios can be just as difficult for her to escape. The study found that the majority of the victims were between sixteen and twenty-four years old, though service providers reported assisting girls as young as age twelve and women in their fifties to sixties. Often, victims seek help for other services like domestic violence or an abortion, and only through counseling interviews does the existence of the forced marriage become clear. Forced marriages of LGBTQ individuals also occur, and can be a family’s attempt to hide the sexuality of the victim.

Being forced into a marriage affects all aspects of one’s health. Before the marriage takes place, during what is called the “grooming” period, her family may pressure her by using threats to harm her, another member of the family, or by causing harm to themselves in front of her. Girls who are U.S. or Canadian citizens have been kidnapped and taken abroad against their will to be married in another country. Panelists explained that girls who try to resist the marriage can experience “slut-shaming” by their family, who insist that she is refusing the marriage because she wants to be promiscuous all over town. Survivors of forced marriages often suffer from rape trauma, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), depression, anxiety, and eating disorders. Survivors also often feel extreme self-blame and grief; many are told by their families that refusal will lead to excommunication from their families.

Supporting victims of forced marriages is extremely difficult under the current U.S. and Canadian legal and social service systems. Domestic violence is the most recognized form of violence against women in these countries, but the cultural context of forced marriage makes it a distinct problem which is not met by a system built to remedy domestic violence. The process of forcing a girl into a marriage is often long and hidden. Panelists explained that in their experience Child Protective Services has failed to see the imminence of the harm if the girl has not yet suffered physical violence. However, service providers like the Tahirih Justice Center and Global Justice Initiative say there is a cycle of violence that leads up to the forced marriage, though it is not always physical.  Additionally, many victims seeking assistance report that they do not want to press charges, or use the legal system at all, because they do not want to get their families in trouble. Most victims report that they simply want to be safe, and avoid or end the forced marriage.

The United Kingdom passed a bill to criminalize forced marriages in March 2014, but the panelists say that the U.S. and Canada are far from ready to criminalize forced marriages. They explained that the U.K. has been working on the issue for over a decade, while the U.S. and Canada are both years behind. At this point, panelists explained, we have just barely begun the conversation on the issue and it is imperative to continue an open conversation through public education and outreach. Criminalizing at this point would simply force the issue further underground. Panelists predict that criminalization would lead to similar effects seen after criminalizing female genital cutting (FGC or FGM). Studies found that after criminalizing FGC the practice was pushed out of the public sphere and further marginalized victims and vulnerable girls even more. For now, further work needs to be done to learn more about the issue and to educate communities on its implications.

Panelists proposed several recommendations to better address forced marriage in the U.S. and Canada. First, they expressed a need for forced marriage to be understood within the violence against women arena, which has traditionally been more narrowly defined. Forced marriage falls within the continuum of gender-based violence, as it is practiced on a woman simply because of her status as a woman. The definition of violence against women needs to expand to encompass removing a woman’s right to choose if, when, and who to marry, and the associated harm. Second, panelists explained that Child Protective Services has so far either ignored reports of forced marriage, or rushed in and interviewed the family, without considering safety plans for the girl.  This aggressive response can potentially scare already abusive families into more violence against the girl or lead to abductions and earlier marriages.  Third, State marriage laws should be reevaluated to assess whether both parties are freely and fully consenting to the marriage. Minors are allowed to marry in several states in the U.S. with parental permission. Currently no state law that allows for the marriage of a minor with parental consent states that the minor must also give his or her consent. Fourth, panelists recommend that the federal government track data on forced marriage, train embassy staff to recognize and respond to cases of forced marriage, and engage with other countries to learn best practices for prevention and protection of forced marriage survivors.


Julia Alanen, Co-Founder and Director of the Forced Marriage Prevention Initiative, Global Justice Initiative, Inc.

Heather Heiman, Forced Marriage Initiative Program Manager and Senior Policy Attorney, Tahirih Justice Center

Farrah Khan, Counselor and Advocate, Barbra Schliffer Commemorative Clinic

Natalie Nanasi (moderator), Practitioner-in-Residence and Director, Washington College of Law Domestic Violence Clinic