Anecdotal Report on the Incidence of Forced Marriage in Western Canada

The Themes Emerging from the Stories

Findings from the Stories

From an overview of all the stories a set of themes has emerged out of which five main themes are selected and presented here. These form the findings of this investigation from the stories. Although these themes do not portray the richness and complexity of these stories, they do point out certain common features in the occurrence of forced marriage in three Western Canada locations, where the data were collected.

1. Reasons for Forced Marriage

In all the stories the reasons given for forced marriage are very similar. Forced marriage takes place for a number of reasons including: economic considerations, socio-religious considerations, family-related factors such as structure of the family, and a concept of family honour (izzat). In addition, forced marriage occurs in Canada to obtain immigration status through sponsorships as well as to preserve cultural heritage. The reasons given in the stories of forced marriage fall within one or more of these categories.

a. Family Honour

Family honour among tradition-bound authoritarian families is a powerful motive to force both sons and daughters to marry a particular person or to marry into a particular family and to remain in that marriage. Family honour is threatened if for example, one does not keep the promise of a childhood betrothal or, among Muslims, if the custom of marriage among cousins is not honoured. Adult children who have a different sexual orientation may be forced to enter a marriage chosen by their parents to cover up their “deviant tendencies” which, if exposed, will dishonour the family.

b. Economic Reasons for Forced Marriage

Marriage decisions for young men or women are very often dominated by financial considerations. Partners for them are chosen from well-off families with the motive of getting financial rewards and/or links with influential people which will also bring financial gain. If the young people do not agree they are often pressured and forced into obedience and acceptance of the proposed marriage partner.

Poverty is found to be another reason for forced marriage of girls especially to a Canadian citizen. One respondent said “they think that dollars are strewn on the streets of Canada.” Many stories reflect situations of girls overseas forced to marry a Canadian because the chosen husband will provide money to their poverty-ridden families and parents are comforted by the knowledge that they have married their daughter into economic security. They are also forced to marry older men in Canada who agree to forego the demand for a dowry from the girl’s family. On the other hand, men in South Asian and Middle Eastern countries are known to pay money to the family of a Canadian girl on the understanding that they will be sponsored for immigration regardless of whether the Canadian wants to marry the man. Not all families who seek sons or daughters-in-law in Canada for immigration are poor. They do it to be sponsored by a Canadian often through forced marriage of their children.

c. Socio-Religious Considerations

Marriages are arranged to ensure that racial, religious and linguistic boundaries are not violated. If young people refuse to marry the partner their parents select or choose a partner from a different caste or religion then immense emotional and social pressure is brought upon them in the name of religion, culture, ancestral tradition and duty to obey the parents. Such marriages have cultural sanctions. Several stories in this report illustrate this point.

Young people in love are often forced to marry someone else whom the parents choose, as stories show. The argument is that love is not to be trusted as an appropriate emotion to determine the suitability of marital partners. Parents in their “wisdom” can choose what is best for their children. Moreover, love crosses boundaries of religion, race and caste, which cannot be permitted in traditional families. There are stories that show both men and women in love who were forced into marriage with someone else. So the question of love is irrelevant in an arranged marriage because the purpose of marriage in these communities is to propagate and to ensure economic security and family support for their children. Love is not needed to achieve this objective. In fact it becomes a threat to the structure of patriarchal authoritarian social order. Maintaining stability of this order is very important in such societies. In the patriarchal and authoritarian family hierarchy, the power is in the hands of the head of the family (usually the father). Women and young children (male and female) have less power and owe obedience to the head. Hence most of them find it hard to rebel against a forced marriage and give in.

2. Force in Marriage

From the analysis of the stories, the concepts of force and coercion emerge as a two stage occurrence in a forced marriage.

Usually the concept of forced marriage is - a marriage performed without the consent of one or both of the parties, often by force.

This represents only one stage of force in forced marriage that is, pre-wedding force or coercion by the family to make the person go through the ceremony. But marriage which is performed under force can also involve force “after the wedding” if the person feels trapped and is forced to continue to live in an abusive and violent marriage under threats or fear or out of duty toward family honour. This ongoing force is the case in the lives of many of the women and men whose stories are depicted in this report. Hence, the concept of force in this study is viewed as extending from pre-wedding force to post-wedding force. No single definition of forced marriage tells the whole story. Marriage may be forced both at the point of consent before marriage and force may continue to be an issue after the marriage.

The stories depict many forms of force and coercion, from pressure to threats to extreme physical violence. Before marriage every one of the victims was forced with pressure and threats. All of them married unwillingly. After marriage most of the victims were forced to act against their will under threats and violence. Hence, through the lens of these stories, forced marriage appears to be a saga of force throughout the life of the marriage. For details, the stories speak for themselves.

3. Use of Fraud in Forced Marriage

The stories reveal that very often forced marriage takes place under fraud and false pretences.

Fraud is used both by the parents to force young, unwilling adult children into a forced marriage and also by young men and women to find a way to please their parents as well as have their way. This is especially common in overseas marriage of Canadian citizens. As a result, there is also fraud involved in terms of the information given to immigration authorities.

a. Forms of Fraud

From the description in these stories, fraud is involved in the following ways

  1. Giving false information about a future spouse and his/her family;
  2. Hiding information about the future spouse or family;
  3. Marrying unwillingly with no intention of sponsoring the spouse;
  4. Marrying someone under pressure with no intention of committing to the marriage;
  5. Forced marriage also takes place to please the parents with the intention to leave the spouse and marry a previous boyfriend or girlfriend;
  6. Parents use fraud to take their Canadian-born children on some false pretext (“Your grandmother is ill”) to their countries of origin, where they are forced into a marriage already arranged by their relatives in that country.

Fraud and false pretences are also used to get sponsored and/or to bring relatives to Canada by forcing a son or daughter to marry a Canadian Citizen.

b. Fraud for Obtaining Immigration Status

Getting married to a Canadian citizen solely for immigration purposes with the intent to divorce them and bring a previous boyfriend or girlfriend to Canada is a form of fraud.

Some of the respondents pointed out that the Canadian immigration policy supporting family reunion through sponsorship of relatives provides a significant motivation for forced marriage. Very often Canadian-born adult children are open to being used as a lever to sponsor “connected” relatives through marriage. What the stories show is that Canadians as well as women and men from other countries use deception in marriage to gain immigration status.

4. Choice and Consent

In many South Asian and Middle Eastern countries there is either gender segregation and/or strong disapproval of young people meeting, mingling and dating. There is very little possibility of a personal choice of a marriage partner in such a cultural ethos. Even in many such communities in Western Canada, Canadian-born young people are not permitted to choose their own partner, despite having opportunities to meet other young men and women. Choosing their own partner is unacceptable to their families for fear that they may choose someone unsuitable. The stories show how young people, especially women, who may want to marry by choice are either not allowed to make a choice, or if they do, their family strongly disapproves. Very often a marriage is arranged for them with a person of their family’s choice. Many of them have no commitment to marriage and may not even live with the spouse or, may live an embittered and frustrated life. Although some inter-cultural, inter-faith marriages take place, young people face a lot of opposition and pressure to end the marriage. In one of the stories, her family disowned her for this reason. In one case, even physical violence was used. In all of these cases of forced marriage, although young men and women have to formally give their consent, in most cases they do not do so freely or do not mean to commit to the marriage.

Thus the stories reveal that giving consent under duress is a not a matter of a simple yes or no; it is complex. The stories also show that consent is often not considered important or necessary; it is taken for granted.

5. Consequences of Forced Marriage

In all the stories forced marriage is found to be closely linked with domestic abuse and violence in all its intimidating forms. Forced marriage, as long as it survives, appears to do so with the disastrous consequences depicted in most of the stories. A repeated theme of abuse and violence runs through all but two of the twenty-one stories. The plight of victims within forced marriages is described by the respondents in horrific terms.

The victims suffer from emotional, psychological, physical and sexual abuse. The abuse ranges from milder forms like neglect and rejection, to extreme forms such as actual and attempted murder. The following list of descriptive words (in quotes) are taken from each story, as narrated by service providers, to convey the nature and extent of abuse.

Women in forced marriage, in these stories, live under:-

“Suspicion, rejection, neglect, humiliation, accusations, manipulation, threats ( of deportation, of cancelling sponsorship, of divorce and taking children away), control by husband and in-laws, financial deprivation, isolation, marital rape, divorce, assault as in beating, pushing, pulling hair, sexual assault, demand for prostitution, attempted murder and murder.”

The above descriptive words portray the painful lives and experiences of the victims and show how vulnerable victims of forced marriage are, and the kind of vulnerability they face. Noorfarah Merali, in an article in Feminism and Women’s Rights Worldwide (2010, p. 112 – 117), has reported, based upon the findings of a number of cross cultural and international research studies, the outcome of women’s forced and arranged marriage. She identifies and discusses the following factors associated with such marriages: “spousal abuse”, “mental health problems”, “self harm”, “suicide attempts”, “criminality”, “male control”. She adds: “International arranged marriages have been found to increase women’s risk for various kinds of emotional abuse”. She concludes that immigration policy of sponsorship “enforces women’s social and economic dependence on their husbands and husband’s exclusive control of resources. [This is] part of the etiology of gender based violence” (p. 117). She goes on to suggest that, to ensure a sponsored bride’s basic material subsistence, family immigration policy may consider creation of spousal allowances for the bride in the amount that government expects the sponsors to devote to their new brides. (p. 124)

In all the stories the pervading emotion is fear:

  1. Fear is the main tactic that seems to be used for controlling the behaviour of the wife, the daughter, the daughter-in-law, and even of young men in the stories.
  2. It is obvious from the above accounts of life within forced marriage that violence is widespread in forced marriage.
  3. The stories show that disproportionate numbers of women are subjected to violence. Only in two stories does no violence exist because the victims say that their husbands were considerate and compromising. This fact is significant as it confirms that most violence in these forced marriages comes from men.
  4. Our findings show that most marriages, depicted in these stories, ended in misery and then divorce. Those which did not end in divorce survived out of fear: fear of more abuse, fear of dishonouring the family, fear of immigration being cancelled, fear of losing their children and fear of the unknown.

In cases of forced marriage violence starts at the very beginning of marriage. Girls in forced marriage may be unwilling to consummate the marriage, and from that moment force and violence often starts. Then for various reasons it continues throughout marriage. The husband and family want to make her subservient and compliant through violence.

These are some of the themes that are found to be common in most of the stories. The similarity among cases in different locations appears to identify some of the basic features of forced marriages. This information is significant because it may help in the identification of preventive and remedial measures and services needed for the victims of forced marriage, across Western Canada.

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