Forced Marriage - An Invisible Form of Persecution

Posted by Kiera Bloore on Tue, Aug 21, 2012 at 13:24 pm

This summer, as part of my legal internship with HIAS, I chose a personal research project and presented my research to HIAS’ Washington DC office. This was a wonderful opportunity for me because my topic - forced marriage asylum claims - combines my two main academic interests: women’s human rights and asylum law.

I am particularly interested in women’s rights with respect to marriage. This past spring, I was in Georgetown’s International Women’s Human Rights Clinic and we researched discriminatory marriage practices in Uganda, including polygamy, bride price, child marriage, and widow inheritance. After conducting our research, we wrote a human rights report and drafted legislation to amend and prohibit these harmful marriage practices. Working for the clinic was the first time I learned and thought critically about the role of marriage and how it affects women and their families around the world.

Having grown up in a financially stable and progressive home in the United States, I have a very Western and idealistic perception of love and marriage. I was always told I should marry someone who adores me, who makes me happy, and who respects me. So, as you might imagine, I was quite shocked and troubled to learn that many women around the world do not freely choose who they marry and are subjected to severe and sustained abuse during their marriages, including domestic violence and marital rape.

Therefore, to continue my education on this issue and to tie it into the work I have done with HIAS, I decided to research forced marriage asylum claims in the United States. The first thing I learned is that it is important to understand what a forced marriage is and how it differs from an arranged marriage. In a forced marriage, an individual feels she has no ultimate right to choose her partner and/or no meaningful way to say no to the marriage. Whereas, in an arranged marriage, the families of both parties (or religious or cultural leaders) take the lead, but ultimately, the choice remains with the individual. While arranged marriage is an acceptable marriage practice, forced marriage is a human rights violation.

Kim Thuy Seelinger, Staff Attorney and Clinical Instructor, Center for Gender and Refugee Studies at the University of California, Hastings College of the Law, shared the following story in her report Forced Marriage and Asylum: Perceiving the Invisible Harm, which illustrates the level of duress involved in a forced marriage and the severe physical and emotional harm it can cause a woman:

A young woman in Guinea was forced to marry a wealthy man, thirty years her senior, who had two other wives. When she protested the marriage, her father bound and held her without food, whipped her on six different occasions, and locked her in her room for two days. After the marriage, her husband raped her almost daily. At least once when she tried to refuse sexual relations, he physically abused her. She was able to flee to a foreign country, but her husband located her. He called her, threatening to notify the authorities and have her returned. She then fled to the United States seeking asylum. Her case was denied by an asylum officer but granted by an immigration judge.

While this Guinean woman was fortunate enough to be granted asylum, most asylum claims in the U.S. based on forced marriage alone have not been successful. The jurisprudence on forced marriage is underdeveloped and both advocates and adjudicators need to be educated on this complex issue.

Finally, forced marriage has recently been identified as a growing problem in the U.S. within immigrant communities. The Tahirih Justice Center conducted a forced marriage survey in 2011 and as many as 3,000 known and suspected cases were identified by survey respondents in just the last two years. Over 500 agencies in 47 states responded to the survey and 67% felt that there were cases of forced marriage not being identified in the populations with which they work. Therefore, it is likely that there are many more cases of forced marriage beyond the potentially 3,000 identified by the survey. However, the U.S. has very few domestic laws and policies to help forced marriage victims.

More research and advocacy needs to be done on forced marriage, both in the context of U.S. asylum law and its practice here in the U.S. I am so thankful that HIAS provided me with the opportunity to learn about this issue this summer and I intend to continue my research as I move into my final year of law school.

To read the full Tahririh Justice Center survey report, click here.


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