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“Zero Tolerance” Act risks unintended consequences, limited effectiveness

A bill announced Nov. 5 by the Canadian government, the “Zero Tolerance for Barbaric Cultural Practices Act,” pledges to combat certain forms of gender-based violence committed against Canadian citizens or residents, such as forced marriage and “honor”-based violence. As the leading U.S. organization advocating for better protection and support for domestic forced marriage victims, Tahirih Justice Center welcomes the Canadian government’s commitment to address these fundamental human rights abuses, but has concerns about the bill itself and the ways it may be interpreted and applied.

Some elements of the Canadian bill are promising. For example, setting a national minimum age of 16 below which no province can grant a waiver for a minor to marry, could address both forced marriages and early marriages that lack meaningful, informed, mature, full and free consent. In the United States, Tahirih urges a uniform age of 18 as the minimum legal age of independent consent to marry; eliminating waivers based on parental consent; requiring a hearing before a family court judge and other safeguards before a waiver can be granted to anyone under age 18; and setting age 16 as the absolute minimum age for any judicial waiver.

Unfortunately, the aggressive tone of the Canadian bill’s title (using words like “barbaric”), along with the way it is being framed to focus on forced marriage and other forms of violence as an immigrant import, threatens to alienate immigrant communities, advocates, and leaders, instead of inviting them to be critical partners in the effort to tackle all forms of violence, in all families and communities. The bill’s sweeping scope, including provisions that would not only prosecute those who knowingly officiate at forced or underage marriages, but also prosecute and imprison up to five years anyone who knowingly “celebrates, aids, or participates” in such a marriage, is overly broad and may have the unintended effect of deterring victims or loved ones from reporting forced marriages or seeking help.

Forced marriage situations are incredibly complex and can involve multiple perpetrators and multiple victims. A mother may herself be threatened, for example, to compel her to pressure a daughter into a marriage. And she may feel powerless to stop the marriage or help her daughter for fear of increasing the risk of violence to the daughter, herself, or other children.

“The broad approach set forth in the Canadian bill could further isolate victims who fear they would indict their entire family, or face prosecution themselves, by coming forward,” cautioned Tahirih’s Forced Marriage Initiative Project Manager and Senior Policy Attorney Heather Heiman. “‘Zero tolerance’ policies also tend to broadcast to victims that they will have ‘no control’ over what happens next if they seek help, potentially discouraging reporting by forced marriage victims already caught between despair and desperation about their lack of input in decisions that intimately affect them.”

Overall, the Canadian bill and the public education materials accompanying it do not fully address the complex challenges that forced marriage situations pose. Importantly, too, the bill includes no commitment to funding community outreach, services and supports for victims, and training and awareness-raising for service-providers, which should be a top priority. This type of community engagement is critical to enable the public to trust the integrity and safeguards built into the bill and related laws against unfairly selective or overly harsh criminal prosecutions, and to demonstrate a public commitment by the government to fairly administering the law for the protection of all victims, whether Canadian citizens or immigrants.

Tahirih urges the Canadian government and legislative leaders to engage in thoughtful consultation with leading Canadian NGO experts and advocates, such as the South Asian Legal Clinic of Ontario, to develop alternative legislation and public campaigns that by being more responsive than reactive, will ultimately have deeper and more lasting impact.

MEDIA CONTACT: For more information or to arrange an interview with one of our immigration experts, please contact Tahirih Communications Manager Marlena Hartz at [email protected] or 571-282-6191.