Imagine being 23-years old and a promising science student studying on scholarship in England. Then imagine that having lived in the UK for half your life you are being forced by the government to return to your country of origin because your father demands that you marry your older cousin. Imagine that if you refuse, you will likely be killed.
That is the horrific story unfolding today about an aspiring astrophysicist whose identity is being protected by The Independent, which told her story last month. It’s a story that is repeated regularly for countless women in many countries who have no place to run. In this case, officials in England claim there is insufficient evidence that this young woman is at risk, despite the fact that she has reported frequent physical and mental abuse by her father and asserted that she and her siblings along with their mother fled to the UK. Her story should not be unbelievable; one in five murders in her native Pakistan are attributed to honor killings committed by fathers and brothers.
Now imagine that you have been betrothed at the age of eight, and then married off to your abusive first cousin, aged 34, at the age of 13. That’s what happened to Naila Amin in New York state and it was completely legal. Today Naila, who runs the foundation that bears her name, fights to ban child marriages in New York, which often occur because of loopholes and exceptions in the law.
According to a report earlier this year by the Associated Press, the U.S. has approved thousands of requests by men to bring child adolescent brides into the country. The approvals are legal because the Immigration and Nationality Act doesn’t set minimum age requirements. The U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services goes by whether the marriage is legal in the home country and whether the marriage is legal in the state where the petitioner lives. Naila Amin, like the astrophysicist, was from Pakistan, and a victim of that system.
According to a UNICEF report, worldwide there are more than 700 million women alive today who were married before their 18th birthday. More than a third of them were married before the age of fifteen. USAID claims that in the developing world one in three girls are married before age eighteen. Some are as young as eight or nine years old.
The minimum age for marriage in most U.S. states is eighteen. But every state has exceptions, including “parental consent” and judicial approval. The founder of the nonprofit organization Unchained at Last, herself a child marriage victim, told the New York Times, “Shockingly, 91 percent of children married in New Jersey were [found to have been] married to older adults [in a study she conducted], often at ages or with age differences that could have triggered statutory rape charges, not a marriage license.”
The Tahirih Justice Center, a national organization that protects immigrant women and girls who find themselves in the United States in arranged and abusive marriages, provides legal services and advocacy in courts, communities and Congress. It points out that “there are very few laws and policies in the U.S. that are specifically designed to help forced marriage victims.”
The District of Columbia and some states have statutes that criminalize forcing someone into marriage in “certain circumstances” the center says, but “these laws seem designed for other purposes than to prevent parents from forcing marriage or to punish them for forcing their children into marriage. The majority of state criminal statutes arise in the context of laws against abduction, prostitution, and/or ‘defilement.’”
Unchained at Last estimates that “given the size of the various communities in the U.S. that are known to practice arranged or forced marriages, which include Orthodox Jewish, Muslim, Mormon, Sikh, Asian, African, Hmong and other communities, hundreds of thousands of women and girls in the U.S. are in arranged/forced marriages.”
The story of a woman named Syeda puts a human face on the plight of immigrant women in forced marriages living in the United States. Forced into marriage in Pakistan at the age of sixteen, she first lived with her parents while continuing her studies. When she was twenty-five her family moved to Boston. Her husband joined her there, moving in with her family. She was immediately subjected to horrific physical and sexual abuse which she endured for months until her family threw her out of the house because she refused to return to Pakistan with her husband. Syeda fled to a women’s shelter and has since taken control of her life. She has earned a college degree, has a job and lives independently. With the help of Unchained she is getting a divorce.
Syeda was lucky. But for thousands more children, here and abroad, the nightmare of forced or arranged marriage continues. Clearly, states need to step up their efforts to save these children. All of us need to realize what is happening to them, and to advocate on their behalf.
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Elayne Clift writes about women, health and social issues from Saxtons River, Vt.