Report on the Practice of Forced Marriage in Canada: Interviews with Frontline Workers
Exploratory Research Conducted in Montreal and Toronto in 2008
The survey participants make the following recommendations:
- Conduct a national awareness and prevention campaign like those undertaken in certain European countries to inform people about this problem.
- Create mechanisms to help people dealing with forced marriage (accessible help centres and shelters, places for parent-child-professional mediation, telephone help line).
- Provide better funding to strengthen counselling and help structures.
- Develop a training plan and design specific tools to help frontline workers deal with the problem of forced marriage.
- Produce an information kit for teachers and students.
- Produce information pamphlets and posters as a deterrent for use in local community service centres (CLSCs), community centres, welcome centres for immigrants, churches, schools, etc.
- Organize legal information sessions for parents and youngsters stressing that forced marriage is contrary to the law and infringes human rights as well as women's rights.
- Undertake awareness initiatives with youth at school so they will be able to detect signs of distress among classmates under duress to marry and report the situation to school officials.
- Provide for clear legal provisions applicable to a forced marriage so that it may be annulled without any time limit and without placing the burden of proof on the victim.
- Organize discussion meetings at the local level, with the support of community organizations, so that parents and children can exchange views on the subject and discuss the issue.
- Organize meetings between families and religious authorities so those authorities can convey the message that forced marriage is not based on any religious principle but is a cultural practice, because many parents who force their children to marry believe they are obeying an Islamic precept and thus honouring their faith. The religious authorities should remind their congregations, for example during Friday sermons, that marriage requires the consent of the woman and the man, as a commitment between two people who are free to choose.
- Avoid making value judgments about the communities where the practice exists.
- Encourage the integration of members of minority groups into the social fabric rather than ghettoization and community isolation.
Our field survey confirmed the existence of the practice of forced marriage in Canadian society, especially in some families in certain communities. Although contrary to the law and an infringement of human rights under international law, forced marriage is most often the repetition of a cultural practice and a significant part of matrimonial traditions in families which practice it. The problem is very complex and our survey of service providers has revealed both many aspects and some of the serious consequences.
A marriage is regarded as forced when the people who bring it about are not concerned about the consent of the individuals involved and put pressure on them in order to achieve their goal. Violence is always present, whether verbal, psychological or physical, and mainly targets young women. Because it is a taboo, this practice is still greatly underestimated if not completely ignored in Canadian society, and victims keep it a secret so as not to bring public disgrace to their families. The secrecy is heightened by the fact that the situation occurs in private.
The survey shows the reasons for which parents or families arrange marriages for their children and force them into marriage if they refuse. There are various reasons and they are based on notions of honour and duty. Indeed, it is often out of a sense of duty that parents or families marry off or try to forcibly marry off their young children, preferably within the extended family or community circle and in the name of family honour or the honour of the membership group. Another reason is the fear of seeing their children "go wrong" by entering into an emotional or sexual relationship or by marrying outside the membership group and thereby damaging the family's reputation. Financial interest is also among the reasons identified by our respondents.
The stakes in a forced marriage mean that there is always an internal family struggle between, on one side, the parents or relatives who apply various forms of pressure to enforce their decision, and on the other, the people to be married who use various strategies to reverse that decision. A power struggle ensues in which each side uses all available means to achieve or defend what it considers at stake. While the survey shows that some people put up little or no resistance when an undesired marriage is announced, there are many who do object and who fight to undo the plan. In such a struggle, two extreme acts can occur: death threats by one side and flight by the other.
Although the persons interviewed agree that this issue must be made the subject of public debate, some of them fear that the media will go too far and stigmatize members of Muslim communities, because this practice is generally associated with Islam. Aware of the impact that coverage may have and the way in which Muslims and Islam are portrayed by the media, they fear that this subject, like the issue of the wearing of the hijab, the establishment of a Sharia court in Ontario or the debate over reasonable accommodation in Quebec, will once again anti-Muslims sentiments in Canada.
As the list of recommendations made by the workers demonstrates, it is also clear that much remains to be done in every area: various kinds of research, legislation and administrative measures and organizing efforts are called for, of course, but along with education, awareness raising and dialogue. All this they stress while distinguishing situations of exploitation and abuse from those that are simply the application of a cultural practice.
That said, having completed this survey we cannot conclude that forced marriage is a social phenomenon in Canada. The survey does not show how frequent or how serious such situations are, or where they most often arise. More detailed studies will have to be conducted to better understand the subject and to determine whether this is a serious problem in our society: further statistical or qualitative surveys are needed to measure, locate, understand and explain the problem in its various forms.
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