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Forced marriage is a pervasive problem with many complexities, experts on AU panel say

WASHINGTON — There is no one-size-fits-all solution to the complex problem of forced marriage in North America, but there are many ways to better protect victims. Experts underscored this message at a discussion on forced marriage April 1 at American University’s Washington College of Law.

Tahirih Justice Center, the Global Justice Initiative, and AU’s Domestic Violence Clinic and Women and the Law Program organized the discussion, “Forced Marriage in the United States and Canada: Opportunities and Challenges in Protecting Survivors.”

Panelists moved from a definition of forced marriage to solutions for its prevention during the in-depth, two-hour discussion. Forced marriage, they explained, is any marriage contracted without an individual’s free and willing consent. The practice is distinct from arranged marriage, which is a tradition in many cultures and requires the willing consent of the individuals involved.

At this early stage in the fight to combat forced marriage in the United States and Canada, more outreach, education, and resources are paramount, said Heather Heiman, a panelist at the discussion and the program manager of Tahirih’s Forced Marriage Initiative.

Right now, there is no government agency tasked with tracking the prevalence of forced marriage in the United States. And training of service providers, law enforcement, and government officials in the complexities of the issue is minimal. That needs to change, Heiman said.

We need to make our current structures — whether it’s child protection systems [or] domestic violence shelters — able to assist and accommodate individuals that are facing this issue, Heiman said.

Panelists also recommended that states mandate agencies under their jurisdiction to address the issue of forced marriage, and amend outmoded marriage laws that can put victims in harm’s way.

“In some states, a young woman [under 18] can get married if her parents give permission. Well, that’s not helpful in a forced marriage situation because [many times] her parents are exactly who want her to get married,” said Julia Alanen, the director of a forced marriage prevention program at Global Justice Initiative.

Parents may feel that a marriage is necessary to honor culture or tradition or to uphold a prior agreement between families. In other situations, families may force marriage to prevent a daughter from engaging in unwanted behavior or gain economic security.

Whatever the rationale, forced marriage violates an individual’s fundamental right to choose whether, when, and whom to marry.

Panelist Farrah Khan, a counselor from Canada’s Barbra Schlifer Commemorative Clinic, stressed the need to recognize forced marriage as a universal problem, and include it in a broader definition of violence against women.

“Forced marriage is within the rubric of violence against women. It’s not something that is imported into this country. It is something that has been happening in this country for a very long time. It is not something that just happens in newcomer communities or immigrant communities. It has been happening in multiple communities,” Khan said.

The forced marriage discussion at American University Washington College of Law was part of the college’s Founders’ Celebration, a series of events, seminars, and panel discussions held from January to May to honor the vision and principles of the college’s founders.