Criminalizing forced marriage in Canada: Lessons from other countries

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 By Alice Musabende | Jan 12, 2015 5:00 am | 


Though his campaign to criminalize forced marriage may be best known for its graphic legislative branding, Citizenship and Immigration Minister Chris Alexander is actually pushing Canada into a global movement led by countries that have already outlawed the practice.


Through his “Zero Tolerance for Barbaric Cultural Practices Act”, introduced in Parliament last fall, Alexander is following European countries such as UK, Denmark, France, Norway and others.


Bill S-7 would amend the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act to make those who practice polygamy inadmissible to Canada. It would also amend the Civil Marriage Act to make 16 years old the minimum legal age for marriage. But more importantly, Bill S-7 would amend the Criminal Code to make it a criminal offence to celebrate, aid or participate in a marriage ceremony in which one of the people being married is either being forced to do so or is under 16 years of age.

But Alexander and the Harper government have been criticized for cultural insensitivity at best and ethnic profiling at worst, especially for the bill’s title.

Consulting more broadly with those countries that have already been down this legislative path might have saved Alexander some grief over that positioning.


French Senator Hélène Conway-Mouret told iPolitics that criminalizing forced marriage in France had to be approached with tact and thoughtfulness, because it was about sending a strong message without hurting the sensitivities of relevant immigrant communities.

Conway-Mouret took offence at Alexander’s use of the words ‘barbaric practices’ in his bill. “To use that term is just so wrong because it is putting the debate where it should not be” says Conway-Mouret who is also a member of the taskforce for women’s rights in the French Senate.


The debate on forced marriage in France picked up steam around 2006, when then President Nikolas Sarkozy’s government passed a law forbidding marriage for anyone under the age of 18.


Though they are critical of how Sarkozy had “politicized the issue” Conway-Mouret says she and the Socialist government of President François Hollande were nonetheless dedicated to fully criminalizing forced marriage in France. “From a political point of view it was a delicate issue because it was a social taboo and it was important not to stigmatize any community within the country”.


After meetings with various associations that work with victims of forced marriages and listening to their tragic stories, Conway-Mouret – then Minister for French Expatriates –adopted what she calls a “pragmatic approach; totally dispassionate from ‘our practices-are-better-than-yours-kind of thinking’”.

Realizing that forced marriages take place mainly abroad and not particularly on French soil, she says she figured that change had to start through the country’s consular system.


After carrying a number of surveys throughout the more than 150 French embassies abroad asking diplomats if and how they had had to deal with the problem of forced marriage, Conway-Mouret says she was able “to get a map of various countries where these cases had been dealt with and therefore what countries to focus on more.”


Under Conway-Mouret’s oversight, a diplomatic initiative was set up to introduce and carry a training module for those who are posted abroad.

The idea, she explains, is to prepare consular officers to know how to deal with these issues focusing on visa application processes. “We created a little form with all the to-do list for those who would deal with those girls (victims) other than not knowing what to do and sending them back to where they are coming from” says Conway-Mouret.


In July 2014, the Government of France amended its Gender Equality Act to include a legislative disposition on forced marriage.

Proposed by Conway-Mouret and carried by the French Minister for the equality for women and men, the new legislation is about sending a strong message. “It’s a signal for the families of those who may think that they are just carrying out traditions but in fact that it is a criminal offence.”


The new French law sanctions forced marriage with three years in prison and 45, 000 Euros of a fine. It also criminalizes people who help organize these forced marriages, such as parents and other relatives.


Forced marriage has also been a longstanding problem in the United Kingdom. According to Emily Dyer, a research fellow at the Henry Jackson Society, a London-based think-tank, forced marriage is a prominent problem mostly within the larger South-Asian communities of the UN, though it’s also widely spread across other communities.


In fact, the problem of forced marriage is so widespread in the UK that the government set up a Forced Marriage Unit (FMU) in 2005 to lead the government’s policy on this very issue. FMU is a joint unit of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and the Home Office that operates both inside the UK, providing support to individuals and offering consular assistance to British nationals dealing with forced marriage.

But it took almost a decade after establishing the Forced Marriage Unit for the UK government to legislate on forced marriages.


In March 2014, the British government amended its Anti-Social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Act to make forced marriage a criminal offence with a sentence of up to seven years in prison.


Last year alone, according to the FMU, recorded cases of forced marriage involved people from 74 different countries, of which 43 per cent of were relating to Pakistan, 11 per cent to India, and 10 per cent to Bangladesh.

The numbers might be the indication that forced marriage is a serious problem, but it’s only thanks to women’s groups that the UK government was forced to act upon and ultimately criminalize forced marriage.


According to Dyer, groups such as IKWRO (Iranian and Kurdish Women’s Rights Organisation) and Karma Nirvana had been campaigning for over a decade to force the government to take the issue of forced marriage more seriously.

“Ten years ago, no one even knew what honour-based violence was, none really knew anything about these marriages. Today it is something the media picks up on a lot, and I think that was the main emphasis behind the criminalization,” Dyer says.


Dyer also said that debates on the criminalization of forced marriage were held within high profile conferences and public consultations involving high-level politicians. She believes these conferences forced the hand of the government.

“People were forced to comment on things like honour-based violence, and even Prime Minister David Cameron talked about the need to criminalize it,” Dyer said.

The new law criminalizing forced marriages came into force in June 2014 and according to Dyer, it was generally well received across the country.

“It gives the government the definition of what forced marriage is and gives the general public the ability to take people to court and get a criminal conviction and I think that is a hugely powerful message,” Dyer said.


But as the UK gears up for an election in May, Dyer worries that there still isn’t a long-term political commitment to helping organizations that work with victims of forced marriage. “The issue of forced marriage and honour based violence is still bandied around like some sort of political football,” she says.


Unlike France and UK’s, Denmark’s criminalization of forced marriages was approached by toughening the country’s immigration policies, particularly with regards to family reunification on the grounds of marriage.


According to Susanne Fabricius, who runs LOKK (The national organization of women’s shelters in Denmark), Denmark requires that both spouses be aged 24 years old for family reunification and the spouse residing in Denmark must fulfill certain other requirements, such as having his or her own residence and be able to financially support the other spouse.


As many experts point out, this and many other measures taken by the government in Copenhagen over the last two decades have earned Danemark the title of the country with one of the strictest immigration policies on the continent.


In 2008, the Parliament of Denmark took it up a notch when it unanimously passed a law making forcing anyone to marry a criminal offence.

But six years after the law was enacted, the police have not charged a single person and the courts have not convicted anyone under the act.

To Fabricius, though the law is important, it’s not surprising that it hasn’t been used since many young women are afraid of what will happen to them or to their families if they press charges. “They are afraid of violence, they don’t want to upset their families, and they don’t want to hurt or make their parents feel bad or be sad.”


The numbers of young people (mostly women) who contact LOKK have been increasing since the Danish government passed the law in 2008. In the last year alone, LOKK registered 53 cases of planned forced marriage, 40 cases of people who had already entered into forced marriage, and 59 cases of those who feared that they might be forced in marriage.


Fabricius doesn’t think that the law has had any impact on protecting young women from being forced into marriage, and she thinks that it might have backfired and driven the problem underground.


Very often, she explains, the youngsters contact her organization with other reasons and it’s only during counselling that they come to know about an earlier or pending forced marriage.


“We have many more youngsters being forced into marriage than you can tell from our numbers”

The common reason is that most of these young people don’t want to report that they are being forced to marry because they don’t want to be disowned by their families, she added.

“Legislation is just a little part of it, it is not enough by itself.  You have to work with raising awareness, so you can change the attitude about this.”

Fabricius believes that the Danish government needs to craft a long-term strategy for dealing with forced marriages and work to raise awareness about this issue particularly among young people.

“You have to do more of this, combined with the legislation.”

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