Five years ago this September, the Tahirih Justice Center helped give birth to a new national movement to end forced and child marriage in the United States.
In September 2011, after conducting the first-ever national survey of forced marriage as a domestic U.S. problem, Tahirih released a report with staggering results:
500 service-providers across nearly every state reported encountering as many as 3,000 forced marriage cases in just 2 years, many involving girls under age 18. Physical violence, and even death threats, were just a few of the many pressure tactics families used against victims.
The impact was incredibly diverse. Forced marriages were reported in families from 56 different countries of origin, as well as in multi-generational American families. Victims came from many different religious backgrounds.
Spurred by these findings, Tahirih launched its groundbreaking Forced Marriage Initiative. Since then, we’ve made major strides in exposing forced and child marriage as U.S. problems, and in galvanizing responses by practitioners and policymakers. Along the way, we’ve come to appreciate just how many different elements have to be marshalled to build support for transformative legal, policy, and social change.
We’ve been privileged to work with so many talented and passionate people from a range of backgrounds and disciplines, including the survivors whose voices are central to this movement.
These courageous survivor-advocates give the movement its very heartbeat.
We are humbled and inspired by how they bear the pain of repeatedly reliving their own pasts in order to spare other girls and young women a painful future.
Like Fraidy Reiss, who was considered dead to her Orthodox Jewish family after she left the abusive arranged marriage she was pressured to enter at age 19. She has since made it her life’s work and the sole mission of the non-profit she founded, Unchained At Last, to help women and girls leave or avoid arranged or forced marriages.
Like Vidya Sri, whose parents sent her at age 18 to live with relatives in India and refused to bring her back home to New York until, after enduring 4 years of near-daily coercion, she finally agreed to marry. Many years later, she left the forced marriage and rebuilt her life, founding the non-profit GangaShakti to contribute to public understanding and awareness and to help other forced marriage survivors find support and resources.
And like Naila Amin, whose parents sent her from New York at age 15 to marry her 28 year old cousin in Pakistan. Over the 5 months of that nightmare marriage before she finally managed to get back to the U.S., she was repeatedly beaten and raped, tried to escape 3 times, and contemplated suicide. But she persevered because she rightly knew she had “so much to offer to this world.” Now, she’s a social work graduate student with dreams of starting her own group home for underage girls who seek shelter from a forced marriage.
These women, by stepping forward and speaking out about their own experiences, have made possible the gains our movement has made so far.
Here’s what Tahirih, together with its partners, has achieved in the first 5 years:
- A “steering committee” to propel and guide progress: Tahirih has worked hard to build a diverse National Forced Marriage Working Group that now has more than 40 organizational members from all regions of the country, reflecting different perspectives, voices, and ethnic and faith communities. Survivor-advocates are key leaders.
- A broad base of advocates and allies create a coordinated national response: Drawing on the 500+ respondents who took our 2011 national survey, Tahirih created and has since grown the National Network to Prevent Forced Marriage to nearly 7000 members, including legal and social services-providers, teachers, counselors, law enforcement officers, shelter workers and social workers, medical and mental health professionals, and others. Tahirih equips members with tool and resources, notifies them of trainings and events, and updates them on news and policy developments.
- Sound policy recommendations for national change: After extensive consultations with the National Forced Marriage Working Group and others, in Fall 2014 Tahirih produced a platform of six priority areas for legal and policy changes to better protect and support survivors and individuals at risk. Tahirih also helped the Commission on Domestic and Sexual Violence of the American Bar Association (ABA) draft a report that resulted in a 2014 ABA resolution to condemn forced marriage as a human rights violation and to urge the legal community to address the issue in the U.S.
- Groundbreaking dialogue on key issues of concern: In June 2016, Tahirih convened the first-ever national consultation on whether forced marriage should be federally criminalized. Tahirih is continuing to shepherd this ongoing critical conversation among survivors, advocates and experts about how best to ensure survivors’ access to the civil and criminal justice systems and other vital resources they need for their protection.
- “Road-shows” to raise awareness: In 2014-2015, Tahirih conducted an innovative 6-month, 6-city national outreach tour, partnering with Canadian artists and advocates and nearly 20 local NGO partners. Over 700 people attended events to highlight survivor stories, train advocates, and promote policy solutions.
- Petitions to capture policymakers’ attention: To complement the outreach tour, Tahirih collected signatures for our petition on Change.org calling on the President to create a national action plan to address forced marriage in the U.S. It’s at nearly 130,000 endorsements to date, including many from survivors.
- Private meetings with the President’s senior advisors: In March 2015, Tahirih led a series of high-level advocacy meetings with officials from the White House and the Departments of State, Homeland Security, Justice, and Health and Human Services to urge leadership to address forced marriage as it does other forms of violence against women. We sparked a federal inter-agency response to forced marriage as a U.S. problem, and are fostering an ongoing government-NGO dialogue. In February 2016, For example, Tahirih presented a 13-page chart of detailed recommendations for better response protocols when U.S. victims are taken overseas at a critical State Department roundtable.
- Sophisticated casework and cutting-edge technical assistance: We have worked on hundreds of complex and high-stakes cases ourselves and have also triaged emergency requests for help from service-providers or victims from 35 states and 20 foreign countries (when U.S. victims have been taken abroad).
- Built the capacity of thousands of professionals to respond to victims: Through a quarterly webinar series and in-person trainings around the country, we have readied more than 2800 professionals with vital tools to identify forced marriages and protect victims. Tahirih’s PreventForcedMarriage.org website is a one-of-a-kind resource hub for both service-providers and individuals in need of help. Since its early 2015 launch, the site has logged over 13,000 users.
- Partnerships to multiply limited non-profit resources: Tahirih has leveraged over 1000 pro bono hours and other assistance donated by over a dozen corporations and law firms. Mayer Brown LLP and Caterpillar helped Tahirih create an interactive “Overseas Country Map” on PreventForcedMarriage.org with summaries of laws and travel restrictions relevant to women and minors who may be taken abroad for forced marriages. Hogan Lovells has given Tahirih 300 pro bono attorney hours to help with legal research and analysis, and nearly 200 other staff hours to help gather child marriage statistics. Other firms that have lent Tahirih assistance include Akin Gump; Awad & Khoury; Fragomen; Jones Day; Kirkland & Ellis; Kraayeveld Law Offices; Maggio + Kattar; McDermott Will & Emery; Miles & Stockbridge; Mintz Levin; Sedgwick; Sidley Austin; Wendy H. Schwartz and Associates; and WilmerHale.
- Evidence to rouse the public and policymakers from their complacency: To complement and supplement our 2011 national survey, among other efforts, Tahirih has:
- Produced a paper for the National Resource Center on Domestic Violence that highlights the intersections between forced marriage and child abuse, sexual assault and rape, domestic and family violence, stalking, female genital mutilation/cutting (FGM/C), and human trafficking.
- Contributed to a first-ever attempt, led by Tahirih’s partner organization Unchained At Last, to pull public records on child marriage statistics from every state. An initial sample of just a few states contains alarming implications for nation-wide statistics.
- Gathered and publicized compelling studies on the many harms that can result from child marriage.
- Conducted nationwide surveys on states’ minimum marriage age requirements and exceptions, preparing detailed legal analyses to expose the slack state laws that make child marriage legal and other laws that disempower them from resisting or escaping forced marriages.
- Advised further studies undertaken by private research institutions under grants from the U.S. Department of Justice, as well as by academic researchers.
- Bipartisan champions and broad-based coalitions to lead the nation in enacting legal reforms: Tahirih worked with standout women leaders from across the aisles, Senator Jill Vogel (R) and Delegate Jennifer McClellan (D), to draft and pass a historic bill to ban child marriage in Virginia, the first of its kind in the country. Tahirih is now advising advocates or lawmakers on pending or potential legislative reforms in over half a dozen other states.
- Significant media attention to bring problems from the shadows to the spotlight: In 2015-2016 (to date) alone, over 80 news outlets – including major sources like The Boston Globe, The Huffington Post, The Guardian, The Washington Post, NPR (All Things Considered and another series), The Christian Science Monitor, and The Houston Chronicle – have highlighted the work of Tahirih’s FMI and our Forced Marriage Working Group partners. Coverage also rippled across dozens of other outlets from The Seattle Times to The Denver Post. Last fall, a powerful op-ed in The New York Times by our partner Fraidy Reiss of Unchained At Last greatly boosted public awareness, and a “Girls, Not Brides” Global Partnership blog this spring featured our joint leadership of the U.S. campaign to end child marriage.
We’ve come a long way since 2011. Forced and child marriage was an entirely hidden and neglected problem 5 years ago, but now we’ve made thousands of people aware of the problems and engaged in finding solutions.
Mounting a dynamic movement to end forced and child marriage in the U.S. takes all this and more.
It takes you.
We want to reach the millions of Americans who still think forced and child marriage only happens “somewhere else.” Tahirih is helping lead a truly historic movement. Join us on this journey!
Here’s what you can do today, with just a few minutes, to help us put forced and child marriage in America’s past:
- Make your voice heard! Click here to tell key state officials that you want to end child marriage in the U.S. Right now, there is a pending bill in New Jersey (A3091) to make 18 the minimum marriage age. Join the push to take it forward and make it law!
- If you were married as a child in the U.S., please share your story with us. Help us drive home for policymakers why child marriage has such devastating consequences and should be eliminated.
- Sign (and forward) our petition for a national action plan to address forced marriage in the U.S.!
It’s exciting to think of all we can achieve together, and of the tremendous difference we can make not only in laws and policies, but also in the lives of individual women and girls.
Thank you for all you do to support survivors, and for standing with Tahirih in the fight to ensure they can soar to their highest potential!