Report on the Practice of Forced Marriage in Canada: Interviews with Frontline Workers
Exploratory Research Conducted in Montreal and Toronto in 2008
2. Analysis of Data Collected from Field Workers
2.5 Pressure brought to bear by the family and social circle
Some young girls accept a marriage proposed by their parents or families as legitimate because they consider that they owe them respect. On the other hand, many others will rebel. The parents then use a whole range of pressure tactics, from emotional blackmail to death threats to achieve their end.
The coercion is very subtle at first. Parents begin with emotional blackmail to convince their children that the decision is well founded. They use this tactic to make them feel guilty and morally responsible while avoiding direct conflict. This tactic seems to be based on love and young persons are especially sensitive to this type of emotional blackmail. They are afraid of displeasing their parents and losing their love and protection, which gives the parents enormous power over their children.
In some communities in which honour is considered to be extremely important, putting the blame on a "difficult" child for not respecting the family's word, which is a serious stain on the family's honour, is a formidable weapon as it creates a profound sense of guilt in the child's mind. By placing the responsibility of preserving the honour of the whole family on their child, parents lead that child to believe that he or she is committing a serious moral transgression. This puts children, especially girls, in a very difficult position, educated as they are to be the guardians of the family's honour. A respondent mentioned the link between honour and wealth [TRANSLATION]
"Because normally a marriage within a cultural community is a source of wealth and if you refuse to let your parents have that wealth, what happens? You argue and then you have to leave home." (Respondent H)
Verbal abuse is used when emotional blackmail fails. Young women are then subjected to insults, mockery, denigration and humiliation. Shunned by the family, they are regarded as the ugly duckling of the clan. Some families control their daughters' comings and goings, or simply forbid them to go out. They are then kept under close watch by their family and even the time they take to go to and from school is monitored. They are not allowed to participate in activities outside school, including recreational or educational field trips organized by the school.
Abuse will increase as long as the young girls continue to hold out and resist the proposed marriage and some parents or families will resort to physical violence in an ultimate attempt to break the will of the most stubborn ones. Such pressure is greater on girls who do not go to school or work and who are told by their parents that marriage is their only hope, the only way for them to achieve a social standing. The same recourse to violence is noted when young girls live with their uncles or aunts or other family members and do not contribute to supporting the household. They are a burden and the family seeks to get rid of them through marriage, as explained by one respondent:
[TRANSLATION] She was young when she arrived, and she lived with her aunt, and one day the aunt said to her:"Okay, a man has come forward,"and then the aunt started carrying on,"Look, you're here, you have no job, you are costing money"and so on."Why don't you marry this man? He has money, why don't you marry him?"She said:"No, he's old."She said:"But so what if he's old? He isn't violent, he has a job, he has a car."The man didn't have a job. You know how people are, you don't know where their money comes from, but you start to realize it when you see how they treat women. There are guys who have four women, and all of the wives work in factories and bring him the cheques. You understand?… Of course she got married under pressure from the woman, because that woman had received money from that man and she told her:"You have no choice, either you get married or you go back home."(Respondent H)
If the young women continue to refuse, in spite of all the forms of pressure put on them, the price to be paid gets higher, and can go all the way to rejection and even shunning by their parents and family. Banishment is also a punishment imposed on people who are considered to have committed an offence against the group by going against their parents' wishes. They are then excluded from the family circle, and even from the community. Exclusion can be permanent or temporary, depending on the family. It will be temporary if the grandchildren born of a marriage chosen by the young girl become the bridge that reconnects the girl and her family.
In extreme cases, those who steadfastly resist their parents' plans are sometimes threatened with death to erase the shame caused to their families. The threat is sometimes made in anger, but other times it is very real.
Another case reported by one of the respondents was how a community association organized the escape of a 17-year-old student whose father had threatened her life when she expressed her disagreement with the marriage he had planned for her. A young student who went to the same school as the person in question, and who had herself been threatened with a forced marriage, noted her friend's distress. She managed to get her to talk and learned that she was under enormous pressure from her father to marry a man from his native village. She advised her classmate to confide in the school's psychotherapist. The psychotherapist then approached a community organization for assistance. The leaders of the organization, who were of the same ethnic origin as the girl, understood that the father's death threat was not an empty threat. Because they had already dealt with similar cases in the past, they rapidly understood how serious the situation was and took the initiative of sending the young girl outside Canada to protect her from a possible honour crime.
[TRANSLATION] I found a community centre that provided help for various cultural communities. The teacher went with her, I found the place — so I delegated it to the teacher and told her that if there was anything I would be available. The teacher went with her and there was a woman who was there. She did not give any support but she knew of a network. She told the teacher: "The girl has to disappear immediately, because if she doesn't it's over. She'll either be married or she'll be dead." She was familiar with how these things happened. Don't ask me where she is, I don't know, and even if I knew I wouldn't tell you. She's in another country, that I know. (Respondent G)
As we mentioned at the beginning of this section, while some young girls do not object to an undesired marriage, most of them refuse employing various bargaining strategies.
2.6 Strategies, bargaining and family conflicts
Persons under duress to marry are in a state of considerable mental vulnerability, torn between their desire to defy the wishes of their parents or family and their feelings of respect for them. There is a profound conflict in their minds between resisting duress and remaining loyal to their families. However, in spite of their state of shock and distress, these persons often find the strength to resist. Just as parents use various forms of pressure to have their plans accepted by their children, the latter use various strategies to foil those plans, ranging from cajoling to running away. A wrenching struggle then ensues.
What persons resisting a forced marriage fear above all is a complete break with their family because opposition to a marriage with a person chosen by the parents leads in most cases to a severing of ties. According to the respondents, this is what happened to people who did not go along with their family's wishes. For some, on the other hand, the fear of jeopardizing a family relationship may weaken their will to oppose their parents: faced with a decision that seems difficult to undo, they simply resign themselves.
Among those persons who are threatened with an undesired marriage or who have already been married against their will, the most vulnerable are minors, young women of the age of majority and those who neither go to school nor hold a job. Very young women have not yet acquired either the maturity or the strength to allow them to oppose their parents' plans. Those who are older but who are at home and unemployed will also have significant difficulty in opposing their families. Parents and the social circle will use this factor to argue that because their prospects are poor, the only way to acquire social status and a secure future is through marriage, especially when they introduce a suitor who has a good socio-economic standing. For this category of women, bargaining will be difficult because they do not have any means to get out of their predicament. Young women who are attending school use their studies as their basis for delaying marriage. They hope that this strategy will help them escape from the situation in the near term and buy time to think about a way to turn things around.
In response to the arguments used by these women to express disapproval of the suitor chosen for them, such as "I don't love him", "he's not my type" or "he's not right for me", mothers reply that they did not love their husbands either at first but they learned to do so with patience and that you have to let time do its work.
One young girl, who met with one of the respondents, was from the West Indies and 17 years old at the time. She was in love with a young man from the same ethnic group and in a relationship with him. The parents came from a higher socio-economic stratum than the young man's and took a dim view of the relationship; they demanded that the girl end it and introduced her to a young man from the majority group. After several attempts to convince her parents to accept her choice, and confronted with their obstinacy, the young girl, with the complicity of her friend, used a last resort: pregnancy. When they learned about it her parents demanded that their daughter have an abortion. She then decided to leave the family home and approached a youth centre, which placed her in a foster family, the end result being the severing of family ties.
What is interesting in that example is that the situation was the reverse of what is ordinarily seen in cases where marriage is imposed by the family. In general, families pressure their children to marry persons from the same ethnic, cultural or religious group and are obstinately against any exogamous marriage. In this case, parents opposed their daughter's relationship with a young man of the same ethnic origin because he was on a lower socio-economic rung. They proposed instead a mixed marriage with a person from another ethnic group, that of the majority in that society. These parents tried to impose a preferred marriage on their daughter within the socio-economic class to which they belong in an attempt to continue their social endogamy.
When they can, young women try to have influential persons intervene as intermediaries between them and their families so they can argue in their favour. Sometimes this strategy works, but it can fail when some obstinate parents remain unwavering in their intention, as may be seen from the following excerpt:
[TRANSLATION] She had endeavoured to bring four people in from the community. A woman somehow from the local mosque or something, and got a man locally, have him call the home at any event, and there were two more senior people, religious people. And that has not gone very well. The family didn't meet the woman, the first person the father didn't take that particularly seriously apparently, and he just blocked the rest out. (Respondent O)
Some young women, when they have exhausted all of their resources to challenge or reverse the decision made by their parents or family, choose the ultimate solution: they leave the family home and seek refuge with friends or in shelters.
2.7 Forced marriage, threatened forced marriage, what are the consequences?
In general, the victims of forced marriage experience great psychological distress and may suffer physical and emotional harm. Whether they have been forced into an undesired marriage, are under pressure to comply with their parents' or family's decision, or have avoided the undesired marriage, the girls and women whom the service providers meet in the course of their work are damaged. This is why some of these respondents work in cooperation with health centres.
Young girls who dare to flee the family environment are caught between anger and guilt. They are constantly fearful of being found and brought home with the risk of reprisals. They must take all precautions to remain invisible and live hidden, thereby considerably reducing their mobility.
Individuals who are unable to avoid a forced marriage endure non-consensual sexual relations. They experience this as a violation of their privacy, of their body and of their identity as women. They become depressed and live with feelings of rage. Very often conjugal violence flares up in such couples, but once children are born, these women often endure the situation to preserve family unity and the safety of the children. In such cases, sacrifice prevails over their own health and well-being.
Another consequence of a forced marriage is the impediment it constitutes to the education of young women who are suddenly withdrawn from the school system. For some families, the social status conferred by marriage is more important than advanced education or vocational training and the sooner it is solemnized, the sooner this status will be acquired. With their academic careers interrupted and with no vocational training, these individuals are then dependent on their husbands and have no financial resources in the event that they experience spousal violence or marital breakdown.
An additional emotional layer that is sometimes added to the painful ordeal of an undesired marriage is the discovery that their husbands already have another wife and family. They then unwittingly end up in a bigamous or polygamous relationship, which increases their vulnerability. The psychological and emotional consequences for these individuals are simply devastating. This is what happened to the young woman, mentioned above, who was forced by her aunt to marry a much older man. [TRANSLATION]
"Yes they live together and they have children but she is unhappy because she found out later that the man had another wife and that his children by that other woman were practically her own age." (Respondent H).
All workers agree that a forced marital relationship has profound physical, psychological and emotional effects on persons who are subject to it, and hinders personal growth and fulfilment. In addition to violating rights to personal freedom, the practice is a barrier to the education and empowerment of young girls.
2.8 Help given by workers to victims of forced marriage or persons threatened by forced marriage
Individuals who are dealing with a forced marriage situation generally turn first to social agencies for help. This explains why service providers are most familiar with this problem. They are knowledgeable about forced marriage because they know how to listen to people seeking help, how to show empathy and hear their stories. This is what those suffering from such painful life experiences need above all: active listening through which a relationship of trust can be built, which is the first step before the process of helping can begin.
[TRANSLATION] I think that the mere fact that the woman knows someone is listening to her is already a step forward. The mere fact that she knows she can come into this shelter (shelter for battered women) and that no one will judge her and no one will criticize her means a lot, because even if she spends only one hour in the shelter and has the chance of meeting with a worker, she will know that the next time she comes back someone will listen to her without judging her, who will be there not to say "yes you have to do that", but to say "you have the right to say no." (Respondent C)
Some advice given by service providers includes
"you have the right to say no: no to a coerced marriage, no to an undesired relationship, and no to spousal violence". Many women who are threatened with or have been in a forced marriage lack knowledge of their rights. Service providers fill the void by giving them information about their rights and the legal recourse available to them. They also work to improve their self-esteem and try to rid them of the feelings of guilt they may sometimes have: [TRANSLATION]
"We try to bolster their self-esteem and to de-victimize them. We make them aware that the problem is not with them but with the system. We educate them and provide a feminist perspective." (Respondent D)
This work is part of a de-victimization process allowing these women to take control of their lives and gradually emerge from a state of helplessness. Our respondents ensure that those who have been or who are being coerced into an undesired or violent marriage are listened to and supported, especially when there is no concrete solution to the problem.
[TRANSLATION] And we discuss the situation together, we discuss what they're going through, how we can help them and in fact we discussed that young woman's case and what we could do to help them. And sometimes there is no solution. The only thing we can do is to give them support, listen to them, let them know that we are on their side, that we're there if something happens, but we cannot solve the issue. Sometimes there is no real solution. If the family persists in rejecting the daughter, it is something she will have to get over. (Respondent A)
To the knowledge of the persons surveyed, there is no organization that deals exclusively with the issue of forced marriage and this means that in Canada there are still no centres or groups of professionals specialized in such services, as one respondent told us:
[TRANSLATION] No, there is no organization that has the tools and means to work specifically on this problem. Even I, as director of a centre, I've been at (name of centre) for 18 years, this is the first year I have started to deal with this problem up close. It is starting to get out, in the public. Of course it has always existed but it's only now that people are starting to talk about it, denounce it and see its effects. (Respondent F)
It is therefore in the context of violence against women that those who are active in women's centres or who work in shelters come up against the problem of forced marriage, especially when they are already consummated and the relationships have turned violent. As one respondent told us,
[TRANSLATION] I come to this from a family violence perspective. I have no training in the forced marriage issue. I have not heard of any specific resources dealing with women who are in forced marriages or being forced to marry. Therefore, I give information about family violence to women in that situation and I refer them to resources such as the Flora Tristan House, for example, which shelters women who are victims of conjugal or family violence… Shelters have developed expertise in this area but it has not been used as a tool to intervene. It has been considered part of family violence in general. (Respondent D)
Another respondent had similar things to say:
[TRANSLATION] We deal with conjugal violence here, we don't deal with forced marriage as a separate thing. Our subject here is conjugal violence. Whether it is a forced marriage, a religious marriage or a normal marriage in quotation marks, we deal with conjugal violence, the same for all women. (Respondent C)
In such cases, service providers follow the regular process that involves helping the person withdraw from a violent relationship by petitioning for divorce, finding an apartment, returning to school or taking training courses to return to the workforce, etc. They help these women rebuild themselves by restoring their self-confidence and raising their self-esteem. Through their efforts, the workers aim to increase these women's capacity to act in their day-to-day lives.
Those who work in legal aid clinics approach the matter from a legal perspective, especially from the point of view of family law or refugee law. Women who turn to these clinics for help in filing a claim for refugee protection with the government have fled a country at war as well as a forced marriage or a threatened forced marriage that often seeks to mask rape, a phenomenon that is always more widespread during armed conflict. In such specific cases, help will be geared to obtaining refugee protection to regularize the person's situation through a legal process. However, legal aid lawyers, who are attentive to the whole story of the person who consults them, do not neglect the other aspects. They will refer the woman to a doctor, a psychologist, a social worker specializing in cases of violence against women, someone to help her settle here, etc. Some legal aid clinics provide services in addition to legal services therefore the needs of the person seeking help are met within the same centre. Otherwise, they are referred to other help centres. The responses show that there is very good cooperation among the various field workers who refer the persons seeking help to each other according to their needs and the workers' respective skills.
…Let's say, a woman who comes in — she may have an infection and will have to seek medical treatment at some point and the problem is that she's just not insured and that means… no, not here, (here at the centre)… there are provisions here for accepting uninsured patients, but we might get a call from a nurse or a doctor, saying you know, we suspect that…you know…she comes in. She has a broken jaw then she may have fallen off the bus back in Marrakech but it's unlikely — it's sometimes difficult to disclose — I'm a white, middle-aged male — it's not necessarily easy to disclose to me what and tell me a little bit about themselves. I know that doctor — she may have been a victim of inner conflict, she may have been sexually assaulted and — so she may not want to disclose anything, and it's our job to reassure her that she'll be okay. (Respondent P)
In cases of young girls living in Canada who are threatened with a forced marriage, there does not seem to be any specific approach or adequate tools to deal with this type of situation. Respondents deplore the lack of means and the lack of training available to service providers to deal with this specific problem. They explain that they do not have the structures required to allow them to play a more influential role in dealing with this particular problem or proper tools to respond more effectively. Thus, they often use makeshift tools and their own ingenuity to help the persons concerned. They will seek the needed information or expertise from other professionals, proving that they are good at contacting and using available resources. The shelter that took in the 13-year-old girl mentioned earlier, and the social worker who met with her, were not sure how to deal with what for them was an unusual situation. Therefore, in order to help the young girl and give her proper support, the social worker turned to outside resources, as she explained:
[TRANSLATION] We really didn't know exactly what to do because we were dealing with a young girl who was at the same time married. So first we had to find out about the law: what category could Quebec law place her in? Was she a child? Or, because she was a married woman, was she an adult? So we had to get advice from a lawyer to clarify the situation. Then we went to the Youth Protection Division at the time and we found a worker who spoke Spanish who came to talk to us about the details because it was hard for us to get into the question of what a child is. We did not want to distress her even more by asking her questions that might not have been properly framed. So we brought in outside help. The social worker was very generous, she came to the shelter and helped us prepare the questions, and ultimately, when the girl decided — because we explained to her that this kind of marriage was not normal here — so she decided to file a complaint. It's before the judge in court and this social worker helped us to prepare the young girl to testify. (Respondent B)
In addition to turning to external resources for social and legal expertise to properly prepare the file and better support the young girl in her efforts to get out of the marriage, this social worker contacted Canadian consular officials in the young girl's country of origin to clear matters up, and also contacted Canadian government authorities to advise them of the case of a marriage between a 13-year-old teenager and a 49-year-old man. She added:
[TRANSLATION] We also contacted the Canadian authorities in (name of the girl's country of origin) several times because we wanted to know more about whether they were aware of the contract the family had supposedly signed with the man and whether money had changed hands for the marriage. We sent a number of faxes and letters, but we never received any reply. So at that point, what we did was write a letter to Immigration Canada to inform them of the situation because this was not the first case there had been in Canada. At that time we knew that several young girls had been married through a prostitution ring, young girls from Thailand, from various countries, and who were married to persons who were quite old. (Respondent B)
One of the respondents, a worker in a shelter for women who were victims of conjugal and family violence, took two of her daughter's classmates, minors threatened with forced marriage by their parents, into her home for several months. One was from Afghanistan and the other from Iran. Hoping to mediate with the parents of these young girls, the social worker first telephoned them to reassure them that their daughters were safe. However, when she went to their homes to convince them to reverse their decision, the door was slammed in her face each time. In addition to the material support she gave these young girls, this woman also gave them advice and information about their rights. She helped them complete their education and enter the labour market. Once they were able to pay rent, she helped them move into their new homes.
One remarkable success by a legal aid clinic involved a case where a girl who had been taken to her country of origin on the pretext of going on vacation, when she was in fact to become a party to a marriage she did not want, was returned to Canada. This teenager faced a fait accompli on arrival but thanks to a warning given by one of her friends and the support and intervention of attorneys and social workers, she managed to escape from this situation.
…The legal clinic as being a unique place for a lot of cases that have come to us from abroad. So the very first case which I didn't do but the person before me did was actually a case where the woman was already outside the country. She was a young girl who was outside the country and she contacted a friend of hers here, and the friend of hers called us and that's how the link was developed, and so (the name of the clinic) was successfully able to get the girl back to the country… she was saved out of the marriage. She was provided with a shelter outside the country through (name of the clinic), (name of the clinic) kept on advocating for her to get a place to live, a shelter and stuff like that. (Respondent N)
The girl was brought home to Canada as a result of the ability of the field workers to mobilize and set in motion an entire system of informal resources, both here and there. However, can we continue to find makeshift solutions to such serious situations instead of establishing a structure that is designed to deal with this problem effectively?
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