Report on the Practice of Forced Marriage in Canada: Interviews with Frontline Workers
Exploratory Research Conducted in Montreal and Toronto in 2008

1. Introduction

This report follows an annotated bibliography conducted to begin to understand the phenomenon of forced marriage in Canada, the extent, the issues and context, the causes and consequences, and the means employed by frontline workers to help persons who are victims of such practices.

To that end, this study was based on a qualitative survey of field workers who deal with this issue. It looked at two aspects: the situations of individuals faced with the prospect of a forced marriage, and the support provided by community workers.

The first question is what is meant by forced marriage? The expression "forced marriage" refers to a marital union where one of the parties, and sometimes both, is forced to marry against their will.

Such marriages are contrary to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, article 16 of which provides that "[m]en and women of full age, without any limitation due to race, nationality or religion, have the right to marry and to found a family. Marriage shall be entered into only with the free and full consent of the intending spouses."

Nonetheless, the practice of forced marriage persists in many societies and every year affects thousands of women, as well as men although in fewer numbers. It exists in Canadian society, but the extent is not yet known. This is why a first study on this subject was necessary.

The goal of the survey that forms the basis of this report was to collect field data to begin to understand this practice, to study the form it takes, and its causes and consequences, to note the actions undertaken at the community intervention level to counter it, to identify some elements that can be used to develop policies, programs and preventive, educational and legislative measures, and finally pave the way for broader research on the subject. This qualitative study is strictly exploratory and is not based on any particular theoretical framework. It aims to answer the following questions:

  • What form does forced marriage take in Canada?
  • Are we looking at an actual social phenomenon, or rather isolated cases?
  • How do service providers perceive forced marriage? What distinction do they make between forced and arranged marriages?
  • What are the underlying causes of forced marriage?
  • What types of pressure are brought to bear on victims by their family and social circle?
  • How do persons threatened with a forced marriage deal with their family and social circle?
  • What type of assistance do service providers offer for people who are threatened with or who are victims of forced marriage?
  • What tools do service providers have to respond to these kinds of requests?
  • What role do service providers believe government institutions, civil society and educational institutions should play?
  • What recommendations are made by the service providers?

1.1 Methodology

Before undertaking the field survey, a literature review was conducted on forced marriage in Canada revealing a clear lack of interest in the subject. Unlike some other immigration societies, Canada has given little attention to the question, whether in terms of basic or participatory research or with regard to policy or legislation. Also, no statistical data exists that could be used to assess how widespread the phenomenon is. Accordingly, this survey was exploratory only.

This study was conducted through a series of interviews with service providers, the only persons likely to have significant information on this subject. These interviews were held in March and April 2008. In all, 16 individual semistructured interviews were conducted with the help of an interview guide, lasting an average of 1 hour and 15 minutes each, eight were held in Montréal and eight in Toronto. Confidentiality was ensured from the start. Each interview was recorded and then transcribed verbatimFootnote 1. Finally, the information collected was processed using a conventional theme analysis method.

1.2 Occupational profile of respondents

In Montréal, the occupational profile of the eight respondents interviewed were as follows:

  • three working in a women's shelter for victims of spousal and family violence (Respondents A, B and C)
  • two working in a women's centre (Respondents D and E)
  • a director of a women's centre (Respondent F)
  • a high school psychotherapist (Respondent G)
  • a director of a help centre for the social and occupational integration of young women from minority groups. This respondent was previously responsible for a foster family for young women facing forced marriage (Respondent H).

The eight respondents interviewed in Toronto gave their status as follows:

  • a violence against women counsellor in an immigrant services centre (Respondent I)
  • an executive director of a community agency (Respondent J);
  • a violence against women counsellor in a health centre (Respondent K)
  • an immigrant services and settlement counsellor (Respondent L)
  • an attorney who is also an executive director in a community legal aid clinic (Respondent M);
  • a paralegal community counsellor working in a community legal aid clinic, who also coordinates a volunteer project (Respondent N);
  • a lawyer working in a legal aid clinic for immigrants and refugees (Respondent O);
  • a lawyer working in a legal aid clinic for refugees (Respondent P).

The names of the employer organizations show that in Montréal, most (seven out of eight) of the respondents recruited work in women's centres, compared to only one in Toronto. On the other hand, seven of the organizations in Toronto are community and/or paralegal aid agencies, while none in Montréal falls into that category. This may have affected the results of the study, but we are unable to assess the effect.

1.3 Difficulties encountered

Collecting data was a particularly difficult task. Dozens of organizations likely to have knowledge of forced marriage cases were contacted during February, March and April 2008, in order to identify as many respondents as possible. There were numerous refusals due to a lack of time to meet with us, as the months of February and March are especially busy for community workers who are preparing activities in connection with International Women's Day and Anti-Racism Week, not to mention working on files to be completed and budgets to be submitted by the end of the fiscal year on March 31. In addition to these time constraints, some of those contacted refused because of their duty to respect the confidentiality of the victims, despite our guarantee of anonymity and the confidentiality of information. In addition, some mentioned being fed up with constantly receiving requests to participate in basic or action-oriented research without seeing any practical results. Some workers in shelters for abused women or women's centres did clearly recall meeting individuals in the course of their work who had experienced or been threatened with a forced marriage, but the problem was eclipsed by the broader problem of violence against women, and so they did not feel that they were in a position to participate in the study and instead referred us to other organizations.

We believe that other refusals were likely based on the very sensitive nature of the problem of forced marriage. Some people who declined the invitation to participate in the study, especially members of particularly vulnerable minority groups, wanted to avoid exposing their group to stigmatization.

2. Analysis of Data Collected from Field Workers

2.1 Socio-demographic description of individuals threatened with or victims of a forced marriage

According to the respondents, individuals who are threatened with or who are victims of a forced marriage are mostly young women. This problem may also affect young men although to a lesser extent and in a different way. These respondents, however had only encountered young girls or women. Therefore, in this report we will deal only with the service providers' experience with young girls and women.

The forced marriage cases identified in the study occurred in families who had come to Canada from South Asia, the Middle East, North Africa, Sub-Saharan Africa, Haiti, the Dominican Republic, Cuba, Latin America and Eastern Europe. However, this finding does not allow us to generalize regarding these regions because there are large numbers of people from these areas who do not follow this practice, who disapprove of it, who denounce it and who strive to eradicate it.

The practice of forced marriage affects girls who are born in Canada or who arrive as children and grow up here, as well as women who were born elsewhere and married in their country of origin and then joined their spouse here, and women who married in their country of origin and settled here with their husbands. Another typical case in Canadian society involves girls who have fled their country of origin to escape a forced marriage and sought asylum here.

The threat of a forced marriage concerns minor girls, young women of the age of majority, as well as adult women. The ages of young girls and women who were threatened with a forced marriage, and who met our respondents, varied from 12 to 27 years. They included girls who were still attending school and girls who were working or in the home. Women born abroad who married in their country of origin either a Canadian citizen, or a spouse who came to live in Canada at the same time as they did, varied in age from 13 to 50. When the service providers met those women, they were going to school, working or working in the home.

In the case of a consummated marriage, the fact that it was a forced marriage becomes apparent only when conjugal violence occurs or is repeated and the woman decides to seek help. The women then tell the workers about the violence they experienced at the hands of their husbands. Few of them reveal that they were married against their will and service providers discover only incidentally from the women's accounts that the relationship was based on a forced union from the start.

In the case of individuals threatened with forced marriage, two typical cases emerged from the interviews: girls who had failed to persuade their parents to change their minds and who then left their families; and girls who were forced into marriage, whether or not they had initially objected.

2.2 Types of forced marriage

The survey revealed six types of forced marriage in Canada:

  1. A person who was forcibly married in her country of origin who then came to live with her spouse already established in Canada;
  2. A person who was forcibly married in her country of origin who then came to settle in Canada with her spouse;
  3. A person who fled a forced marriage in her country of origin (or a third country) and sought asylum in Canada.
  4. A person who was born in Canada or who grew up here who was married by force by her family or members of her social circle to a man already established in Canada;
  5. A person who was born in Canada or who grew up here who was married by force to a man established in the country of origin (or a third country), and settled in that country;
  6. A person who was born in Canada or who grew up here who was married by force to a man in the country of origin (or a third country) who then settled in Canada.

2.3 How respondents perceive forced marriage and the distinction they make between a forced and an arranged marriage

Is forced marriage a serious social problem or are those encountered isolated cases? How do we assess the number of forced marriages? Because a forced marriage essentially takes place within a family and is based on a relationship of domination, it is most often a private matter, restricted to the family sphere. In order to determine the extent of the problem, persons subjected to forced marriages need to talk about them. However, in many cases they dare not do so.

When questioned about the extent of forced marriage within Canadian society, most of the persons interviewed stated that according to them this was a real societal problem and not just a matter of isolated cases. They claimed that this subject is still taboo which is why it is not openly discussed in society and that in reality the problem is much more significant than may be considered.

In looking for people to participate in the field study, we spoke with a number of service providers who did not want to or who were not able to be interviewed, but told us they had encountered people in the course of their work who were facing a forced marriage, and in their view this was quite a significant problem. On the other hand, other service providers contacted, particularly those working in a community environment and dealing with members of minority groups, told us that they had never met anyone living in such a situation or who had gone through a forced marriage. Others were surprised that we were conducting such a study and pointed out that forced marriage is an outdated practice, that parents no longer force their children to get married, and that if there were any such cases, they must be few and far between. These contradictory answers are not surprising regarding an issue that remains taboo and that few want to openly discuss. Those contradictions justify the need for such a study.

Aware of the blurred line between a forced and an arranged marriage, we wanted to study the respondents' understanding of each and the distinctions they made between them. The opinions we received were divided. While some saw the distinction between these two types of marriage as clear, it was less clear to others. However, before examining their views on the two types of marriage, this is how a legal aid clinic in Toronto defined forced marriage:

We pretty much actually worked on getting the forced marriage definition in and the way it stands right now in Canada or say in Ontario, we were the ones who actually came up with a definition. So the idea was that it's a marriage which a man or a woman enters into without identification of these cases - that these cases at times come in garb of family violence or at times they come in the garb of immigration issues. So it's up to the service providers to know how to categorize the case and put it into a different box, rather than putting it into the same box that's the family violence or immigration issue. So at (name of the organization), what we've done so far, is that the cases which we say are direct forced marriages cases, are those where the woman, or the man, who's coming to us is actually seeking help either because they don't want to get married – so the cases that are coming before marriage is very easy to categorize, or the cases where marriage has happened but they don't want to sponsor their spouse or they don't want to go back to their spouse that they have signed... from being away or they want to flee away from the relationship. So those are the three different categories that we directly categorize them as forced marriage for our project. But saying that there are many many many cases where though the marriage has been for five or seven years, but the problems have been continuing ever since the day of the marriage because the marriage was not with the free consent. If somebody is coming to you that late, at times it's difficult to say that it is forced marriage but taking a note it can always help to categorize. (Respondent N)

In order to provide better service to the people who turn to them, those in charge of that legal aid clinic did some thinking about forced marriage and identified several categories of undesired marital unions. This study offers some reflection on the issue and defines concepts, and is therefore already the first step toward understanding the problem.

According to the comments of those who did make a distinction between the two types of marriage, a forced marriage exists when a person's parents, family members or social circle suggest a marriage with a man whom she may or may not know, and when she expresses her disagreement, she is subjected to psychological or physical duress from them to make her go along with their choice. [TRANSLATION] "A forced marriage happens when the woman refuses, resists and detests the person but is forced to accept him. Or she may be taken on a trip to the country of origin as though it were a vacation and be forced to get married over there." (Respondent F)

A relationship based on power and violence is then established within a family. As far as the respondents were concerned, anyone who has lived in a forced marriage and managed to escape from it, or is currently living in a forced marriage, or is currently being pressured by her social circle is a victim of this practice and must be considered as such.

The respondents defined arranged marriage on the other hand, as a marriage in which the parents or family of each of the future spouses play a central role in arranging and preparing the marriage, but have informed the individuals concerned of their intention and obtained the free and informed consent of both parties. In an arranged marriage, the parents or family propose, but the children dispose. Accordingly, this matrimonial practice assumes the consent of both of the future spouses. This type of arrangement does not seem to trouble some of the respondents, who feel that as long as both of the future spouses agree with the choice made by the families and consent to the marriage, the practice itself is not inherently bad. They point out that Canada, the United States and other Western societies have websites and agencies specialized in matchmaking for people who seek love or marriage and that sometimes families or friends act as matchmakers by explicitly encouraging a meeting between a man and a woman. The fact that families in some minority groups find mates for their children is not a problem for the persons surveyed as long as this is not done under duress and the persons concerned are advised of the plan from the beginning.

Other respondents said that they were puzzled by the question. They have difficulty seeing how one could draw a distinction between a forced and an arranged marriage, as the line between them is ambiguous, according to them. They point out that a forced marriage is initially an arranged marriage that becomes forced once the person concerned objects to it and the family or social circle exerts pressure to extort her consent.

[TRANSLATION] They are both forced, in my opinion. Both are forced because the woman does not have the choice of deciding based on her feelings. She has to obey her parents, what the family decides. I don't see much of a difference. Maybe it is less dramatic when it's arranged, less drama, but as far as I'm concerned it is tragic because the person is not free to choose with whom she wants to live, even sometimes they are so young at age 13 or 14 that they do not want to marry, they just want to live their life and youth and such marriages clip their wings. I really do not see much of a difference, except as far as drama is concerned. (Respondent B)

They add that an arranged marriage can be forced if the person to be married agrees to it because she sees no way out of her situation, or believes that objecting involves too great a risk. She may then submit to the decision made by her parents or social circle because she is not in a position to refuse or bargain. As was explained by some respondents, many arranged marriages are actually imposed but do not appear to be because the young women subject to them show little, if any, resistance. According to them, this is a façade that hides the absence of free consent. As explained by one of the respondents, an arranged marriage may have the same consequences as a forced marriage when the woman is subjected to violence from her spouse.

[TRANSLATION] Most often, it is mostly marriages that are arranged by the families. We have had one or two examples, for instance, where it was forced, but the majority, rather, are marriages where it was planned by the two families, but we also see the consequences of this because when there is a spousal violence situation and the woman wants a separation, the fact that her parents made the decision puts huge pressure on her, she can't separate the way someone who loved someone and then decided "okay, it's not working anymore, I am experiencing domestic violence, I want a separation" can do, because the issue is that the families come into it, they get involved and they refuse to allow a separation or divorce. They make threats, "listen, if you do that, your husband's family is going to retaliate, what is the community going to think of us?", and that is a factor in the decision. Some women went back to their husband because of the family. (Respondent A)

These reports show how strong family pressure is in a marriage, both at the time it is arranged and when a woman wants to escape a violent relationship. There are still numerous families which value the institution of marriage and family, consider the status of "married woman" a guarantee of respectability and social recognition and prefer this status to that of "single woman" or "divorcee" even when the marriage is characterized by violence.

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