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Forced Marriage of Minor Girls in the U.S.
By Julia Alanen
Each year in the United States, underage girls are forced into marriages by their parents or close family members. This practice has garnered little attention in the U. S., to date.
Yesterday, on International Women’s Day, we celebrated the achievements of women worldwide. Today, we turn to the task of raising awareness about forced marriage, a devastating form of gender-based violence against women, and raise our voices in support of the brave young girls who challenge harmful cultural practices at great personal risk. Their courage is testimony to the strength of women and girls around the world.
The term “forced marriage” describes circumstances where one or both intended spouses enter into a marriage against their will, under physical force or psychological duress, and without free and valid consent. The U.S. State Department denounces forced marriage as “a violation of basic human rights” and “a form of child abuse.”
The physical and psychological consequences of forced marriage can be devastating and enduring. Some of the young girls are subjected to physical and sexual violence and psychological abuse. Girls who resist consummating the union are often beaten or raped. Once the marriage is consummated, the wife may be perceived as permanently “ruined” or unmarriageable. Even if she annuls the forced marriage, she will likely find herself ostracized by her family and ethnic community. Forced marriages may involve elements of human trafficking, such as the sale or trading of girls into servile marriages, in exchange for a bride price or a dowry. The child-bride is treated as chattel.
Socio-cultural dynamics make it impossible for some girls to stand up to the adults that they have known, loved and respected all their lives. A girl from a communal culture may not be accustomed to or comfortable expressing her fears and desires, or making decisions that go against her parents’ wishes, particularly in their presence.
Unfortunately, existing U.S. child welfare, domestic violence and human trafficking institutions are not currently equipped to protect forced marriage victims or to address their unique needs. Most domestic violence shelters will not accommodate minors, and few service providers are trained or funded to address the issue of forced marriage. In several states, child welfare officials declared that the intended child-brides were not at risk of imminent harm and sent them home, where the girls’ parents promptly severed all contact with advocates and sent the girls to the altar.
For more information on forced marriage, or for assistance identifying resources, contact CLINIC’s Violence Against Women Project Coordinator, Julia Alanen, at (202)756-5505 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
* Julia Alanen, Esq. has worked with survivors of gender-based violence (e.g., domestic violence, sexual assault, trafficking in persons and other violent crimes) since 1997. She holds a Juris Doctor degree and an LL.M. degree in international human rights and gender and the law.
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