Till death do us part: The forgotten US victims of forced marriage

Vidya Sri was a typical American teenager in the Queens borough of New York. She went to school, hung out with her friends and took dance classes. But all that changed when she was 18 and started dating her first real boyfriend, a sweet Irish Catholic boy.

That was in 1987. Alarmed that Sri was dating someone who wasn’t Indian, her father shipped her off to India to live with relatives. Nearly every day for four years, she was pressured to get married. It became a condition of her return to the United States. Finally, she gave in and married a man she did not know.

“I was introduced to him, and a week later we were married,” said Sri, now 44 and divorced.

The marriage was recognized by the U.S., and the couple moved to New York. But Sri didn’t love her husband, wasn’t attracted to him and said she felt as if they came from “two different planets.” Despite not wanting to consummate the marriage, Sri gave in to family pressure and had two children with her husband.

Sri was a victim of forced marriage, a practice in which women — and sometimes men — are forced to marry against their will. The Tahirih Justice Center, a national nonprofit organization that helps immigrant women and girls who have been abused, determined that there were as many as3,000 confirmed or suspected cases of forced marriage in the U.S. from 2009 to 2011.

That the numbers aren’t clear is part of the problem.

“We hide. We hide very carefully,” said Sri, who now works at her own organization to help prevent forced marriages like hers. “This whole thing is so humiliating. It’s so shaming, all you really want to do is drop dead.”

It’s so shaming, all you really want to do
is drop dead.- Vidya Sri

For those who might think that forced marriage isn’t much of an issue in the U.S., a host of organizations, scholars and victims beg to differ. A constellation of factors — from cultural misunderstandings to lack of legislation — keeps the issue in the shadows here, although activists are hoping that a growing awareness in Europe will bring changes in the U.S. as well.

The AHA Foundation, an advocacy organization founded by vocal women’s rights defender and often controversial critic of Islam Ayaan Hirsi Ali, who escaped her own forced marriage in 1992, funded a recent survey of immigrant populations in New York conducted by researchers at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in Manhattan. The results show that the issue of forced marriage is very much alive and probably underdocumented.

“Forced marriage is only one variant of the honor violence that happens in these communities,” said Ric Curtis, a professor of anthropology at John Jay, who led the survey.

Forced marriage in context

While forced marriage may sound like the concept of arranged marriage — with parents playing matchmaker for their children — the element of coercion when a marriage is forced often leaves women feeling “like slaves,” according to Tanya McLeod, senior campaign organizer at the Voices of Women Organizing Project (VOW), an organization dedicating to providing help and resources to victims of domestic violence in New York.

Sri, who was forced to marry in India, now runs GangaShakti, a New Jersey–based nonprofit organization dedicated to helping victims of forced marriage find resources. She said the fact that the issue is often conflated with arranged marriage is a problem when protecting victims like her.

“They say forced marriage doesn’t happen (in the U.S.). You really mean arranged marriage,” she said. “But in my case, this was not an arranged marriage. There was violence. There was coercion. There was fraud.”

While Sri was not a victim of physical violence, she said that the “mental torture” from her father drove her to attempt suicide.

She is also a fellow at the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy at Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government. Her work aims to raise awareness about forced marriage all over the world. She recently published a paper in which she outlines the dearth of resources for forced-marriage victims in the U.S.

forced marriage, arranged marriage, India, pakistan, women's rights
Anthropologist Ric Curtis and his students at John Jay College of Criminal Justice did a survey on forced marriage among the populations most likely to experience it.
 Sarah Fournier

In June 2012 the United Kingdom announced it would criminalize forced marriage, following the lead of Norway, Denmark, Austria, Germany, Belgium, Cyprus and Malta. In 2012 alone, the U.K. Forced Marriage Unit noted 1,485 casesrelated to possible forced marriage.

Curtis said that current research only scratches the surface of a problem he suspects is more widespread but largely hidden from public view.

His team interviewed 100 students at several City University of New York campuses, focusing on Middle Eastern, North African and Southeast Asian (MENASA) countries to try to determine how widespread forced marriage really is.

According to the AHA Foundation’s 2013 annual report, of the people surveyed by John Jay, 88 claimed that they knew at least one person who did not want to get married but did. Of those, 31 said they knew three or more people forced into marriage.

“All that we are seeing is the ugly tip of the iceberg, but how much more is there?” Curtis said.

In 2013 the AHA Foundation helped 54 victims of forced marriage and honor violence, a 54 percent increase from the previous year. Through interim direct services, the foundation refers women seeking help to local social services, legal specialists and law-enforcement officers in their area who can offer protection.

A link to the article can be found here.