By Catherine Porter
Jun 05 2015
Wedding season is starting.
So is forced wedding season.
That’s when young women and girls are taken “back home” for summer vacation and married against their wills.
Their parents and extended families do it for many reasons — to tame them, control them, protect them, save them …
In Sajiha’s case, she thinks her mother wanted to protect her from the drugs she saw on the streets of Toronto, and also expand the family’s network here.
Sajiha — her middle name —was 10 when her mother first told her about the plans to marry her to a cousin back in Sri Lanka, she said.
“I was terrified,” she told me. “I didn’t feel safe to say no. I thought I’d be disowned. I’d come home from school and the locks would have been changed.”
For a time, Sajiha’s older sister convinced her mother to delay the marriage: Sajiha was too young! But when they travelled to Sri Lanka three years later, the marriage was back on — until her cousin refused, she said.
“Because he didn’t want it, it was automatically OK,” she said. “But I was worried it would come up again. I wasn’t sure I could trust people anymore.”
Sajiha is now 22, a sociology and women’s studies university student and a part-time facilitator on healthy relationships for a women’s anti-violence organization in Toronto.
Starting last fall, she toured six cities across the United States with a group of fellow young Muslims from Toronto, raising awareness about forced marriage with a play, a comic book they created about their own stories and panel discussions.
Ironically, while they were on tour promoting discussion, back in Canada Immigration Minister Chris Alexander was introducing his “Zero Tolerance for Barbaric Cultural Practices Act.”
Like every response the Conservatives craft, the bill was a hammer. There would be no survivor-led workshops and plays here.
The proposed law makes forced marriage illegal, and anyone who knowingly “celebrates, aids or participates in” one could face up to five years in jail.
Besides being unenforceable (if proving rape is difficult, imagine proving beyond a reasonable doubt that a person knew the bride had not consented), survivors like Sajiha say the bill is potentially harmful.
“Even when I was 10 or 13, I wouldn’t have wanted to put my family in jail,” she said. “My family was my everything.”
That’s a common story among young women who have escaped forced marriages, said Deepa Mattoo, a lawyer with the South Asian Legal Clinic, who works on cases of young women concerned they will be forced into marriage, or struggling to return to Canada, having escaped a forced marriage “back home.”
“Lots of girls I’ve worked with, they don’t want to leave their families,” Mattoo said. “They just want the situation to go away.”
A study Mattoo co-led from 2010-2012 found 219 cases of forced marriage in Ontario over three years. The majority of victims were women between 18 and 34 years old. About half were citizens, while the other half were permanent residents. Most experienced other forms of family violence — threats, physical violence, sexual violence and stalking. Almost half of them were entirely dependent on their families financially.
While the majority were Muslim, many were Hindu, Sikh and Christian.
“The law in Canada creates a narrative that this is a problem about faith and community,” said Farrah Khan, a counsellor with the Barbra Schlifer clinic. “It’s violence. That’s the problem.”
For the past two years, Mattoo and Khan have been training social workers, guidance counsellors, police officers and other service providers across Canada about forced marriage — how to detect it and how to devise safety plans for young women who sense they’ll be victims.
The solution, they say, is public education and a safety net for women fleeing attempted forced marriages.
Money should be put into counselling services, they say.
If any laws are passed, they should be ones that insist shelters accept young women escaping attempted forced marriages (many still don’t, according to both Khan and Mattoo), and social workers bump them to the top of the waiting list for social housing, as women fleeing family violence. (It now depends on the worker, Khan and Mattoo said.)
Those were among the recommendations made at the end of Mattoo’s groundbreaking report.
What was the final recommendation?
“Do not criminalize forced marriage as a separate criminal code offence.”
That would create stigma and push victims underground, it said.
Funny that Alexander didn’t speak to the women he’s busy trying to save.
The Zero Tolerance for Barbaric Cultural Practices Act has passed through the Senate and two readings in the House of Commons. Alexander expects it to become law later this month, his spokesperson says.
Catherine Porter can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org