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Meeting with White House marks pivotal step in growing call for a national action plan to protect thousands of individuals in the United States who are at risk of forced marriages

Tahirih Justice Center presented a petition today with more than 100,000 signatures to the White House, urging President Obama to create a national action plan to end forced marriage in the United States.

The petition was presented at a meeting with the White House Council on Women and Girls, marking a pivotal step in the growing movement to recognize forced marriage as a domestic problem and develop a comprehensive plan to protect individuals fleeing and at risk of this hidden human rights abuse in the United States.

A 2011 national survey—one of the first and only attempts to measure the scope of the forced marriage problem in the United States—identified as many as 3,000 cases of forced marriage, involving individuals of all ages, genders, religions, and cultural backgrounds, across the country in a two-year period.

“Today’s meeting with the Administration was an important opportunity to share the public’s urgent call for the protection of women and girls, as well as men and boys, from forced marriage in the United States. Forced marriage robs individuals of their right to choose whether, when, and whom to marry, and often sentences victims to a lifetime of physical, sexual, and psychological abuse. We are encouraged that the Administration is beginning to pay attention to this serious but neglected problem, right here within our borders,” said Jeanne Smoot, Senior Counsel for Policy and Strategy at Tahirih Justice Center.

The widely-supported petition to end forced marriage in the United States, started by Tahirih on Change.org, calls on President Obama to create a national action plan that would outline gaps and needs across all sectors in the prevention of forced marriage and the protection of survivors. A national action plan would also examine ways to leverage existing services, such as crisis hotlines, shelters, and anti-violence programs, and identify new tools in the fight to end forced marriage.

“There is tremendous room to improve the government’s own response protocols to forced marriage cases, and to better support and coordinate the efforts of hundreds of non-profit advocates working nationally and in communities to prevent forced marriages and to protect and support survivors,” Smoot said. “Tahirih and members of the national Forced Marriage Working Group who joined us for today’s meeting and who see despair among the forced marriage victims they serve and limitations to the tools and resources they have to help them took heart and hope from today’s meeting that national leadership will be able to make a critical difference.”

Advocates who joined the White House meetings included representatives of the Asian Pacific Institute on Gender Violence, Arab-American Family Support Center of New York, GangaShakti, Unchained At Last, The AHA Foundation, Nerlow Afriki and the Institute for Domestic Violence in the African American Community, Manavi, Greater Boston Legal Services/ The National Network to End Domestic Violence “Relocation Counseling & Identity Protection Initiative”, and the Global Justice Initiative. They shared their frontline experiences working with U.S. forced marriage survivors and insights into the nature and scope of the problem in the U.S.

Tahirih expressed overwhelming gratitude for the 100,000 individuals who signed the Change.org petition to end forced marriage in the U.S.

“They broadcast a clear signal to the Administration about the need for action that could not be ignored. Simultaneously, they sent a moving message of support to forced marriage survivors. Now and in the future, this petition will stand as a reminder to survivors that they are not alone,” said Casey Swegman, a Project Associate with Tahirih’s Forced Marriage Initiative who provides emergency assistance to forced marriage survivors.

The petition presentation and meeting with the Administration also marks the conclusion of a successful six-city, national tour to raise awareness of the problem of forced marriage in the United States. Led by Tahirih and Pomegranate Tree Group in partnership with over two dozen community-based organizations across the six cities, the tour was a vehicle for the distribution of thousands of free comic books that explore themes of forced marriage and family violence, including one young woman’s heartbreaking personal story, and celebrate the resilience of all survivors. Tour stops in New York City, Houston, San Francisco, New Jersey, and Chicago also included multimedia performances, trainings, and issue briefings about the problem. Honoring Our Heartbeats: A Tour to End Forced Marriage in the U.S. culminates this week in Washington, DC.

“We look forward to continued conversations with the Administration about the problem of forced marriage right here in the United States, and we are eager to take additional, concrete steps to create a safer country for individuals who remain at risk,” Smoot said.

The petition to end forced marriage is still open at Change.org, and Tahirih staff and allies urge the public to continue to use this tool to express support for a national action plan to end forced marriage in the United States.

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