Yes, Forced Marriage Still Exists, and Yes, It's a Form Of Slavery

In the 21st century there are still countries in Latin America, Asia, Africa, and Europe that have policies where women who are raped are then forced to marry the perpetrator. What people tend to forget is that every sexual encounter with a person you are forced to marry, constitutes innumerable counts of rape.

In the U.S., forced marriage eludes public-sphere discourse despite being an issue of major concern in criminal and social justice. The silence surrounding forced marriage is compounded by inefficiencies in identifying, investigating, and prosecuting offenders. Forced marriage disproportionally affects women and girls, and is a form of gender-based discrimination and a “gendered human rights issue.” 

Any discussion of gendered rights must be done within the context of a holistic and organic approach. Community awareness is the key. Forced marriage in the U.S. often involves the trafficking of women and girls — in other words, it is modern-day slavery.  Perhaps it is a gendered form of slavery and as a result it warrants less media attention, but whatever the case may be, it is repugnant to our collective moral conscience.

Forced marriage implies a lack of valid or equal consent on the part of the victim-survivor, who is the object of the sexual and non-sexual elements of marriage. For instance, a someone living in a forced marriage has not consented to conjugal relations or domestic work any more than a victim of domestic violence consents to abuse.

In the U.S., forced marriage is a crime which is difficult to identify from a social and criminal-justice perspective. A survey by the Tahirih Justice Center states: "People working on the front lines, both community-based service providers and government agencies, are struggling with how to recognize forced marriage situations, and how to offer a lifeline to young women (and men) who may have only one chance to reach out for help."

The lack of “culturally competent solutions” in the investigation and prosecution of forced marriage sends a message that gendered violence is a unique crime because of the private-sphere nature of marriage and social and religious mores. The apparently sacrosanct realms of family and religion are a mere distraction from the perpetual crime of physical, psychological, and emotional abuse that is forced marriage. 

Public discourse is only a start, and existing laws need to be properly enforced. For instance, earlier this year, Congress stated that the International Marriage Broker Regulation Act (IMBRA) of 2005 has “not been fully implemented with regard to investigating and prosecuting violations against the law.”

The international law regime is not only a good guideline for state and federal legislation but can also help direct investigators and prosecutors to better frame and understand gendered violations which may be viewed as having a “foreign” or “culturally” specific nuance and hence not a matter for the public sphere or state responsibility. Unless this is the case, Western societies like the U.S. will be nothing more than a safe haven for perpetuating offences "under the nose" of the criminal justice system.

Gendered crimes are on the rise overseas and here in the U.S., as indicated by a Human Rights Watch study. Without public discourse and community awareness, the "private sphere" nature of marriage perpetuates the isolation of women and girls. This is why there is a growing need in the West to understand and raise awareness of forced marriage.

Lifting the veil of social and religious mores shrouding forced marriage and "mail-order-bride" syndicates is imperative. This is imperative given the fact that it occurs on every continent in our lifetime. 

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Cleopatra Magwaro

I am interested in various aspects of international law and creative writing. I have an anthology of short stories titled "A Season's Assemblage," which infuses literature and oral storytelling. I have a Bachelor of Justice (Law and Public Policy) and a Bachelor of Laws (LL.B) from Australia. I also hold a Master of Laws (LL.M) from the American University, Washington College of Law. I have lived and worked on three continents.

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