Selected Proceedings From The Right To Choose International Symposium On Non-consensual Marriage (Toronto, Canada - June 2008)
The issue of forced marriage has gained increasing profile in Europe in recent decades and over the past several years in North America as well.
The South Asian Legal Clinic of Ontario (SALCO), a non-profit organization that provides culturally and linguistically sensitive legal aid services to low-income residents of South Asian origin in the province of Ontario in Canada, held a two-day symposium on the subject entitled The Right to Choose in June of 2008.
SALCO began receiving a number of calls from young people, frontline staff at community agencies, and school social workers regarding such cases, revealing a gap in official responses or remedies for young men and women who had been forced into or were confronting potential forced marriages. Staff at the clinic began investigating the issue and found that while forced marriage was not being addressed at the level of social services or in legislation or law enforcement in Canada as yet, there had been significant groundwork in other jurisdictions from which Canadian responses could be developed. In 2007, the clinic took the initiative, along with a number of partner organizations, to plan a symposium where they could share the challenges being faced in Canada as well as learnings from countries that had experience implementing state and community responses to the issue of forced marriage.
The Right to Choose symposium on non-consensual and forced marriages brought together Canadian frontline community workers and activists, local Children’s Aid Societies, the Canadian Department of Justice, local and international academics and researchers and survivors of forced marriage, as well as lawyers, activists and functionaries from the United Kingdom, France and Bangladesh. This was achieved with the participation of a number of organizations serving on an advisory committee, of which AWID was a member.
As a community-based agency serving constituencies that are marginalized on a number of levels relating to race, income, class, and language, and facing significant barriers to equality, SALCO is very sensitive to the issues of profiling and stereotyping. Thus, a conscious effort was made in the opening address to contextualise the problem of non-consensual marriage, clearly distinguishing it from the custom of arranged marriage which does not imply the negation of consent on the part of the intended spouses. Moreover, the practice was framed in a way that recognized that it is not confined to a particular culture or religion or region, but that it occurs across communities, continents and class lines. Preliminary research based on a survey of frontline social service workers in Toronto and Montreal conducted for the Canadian Department of Justice supports this – among the anecdotal data presented were cases of forced marriages in communities from such diverse regions of origin as Latin America and the Caribbean, Sub-Saharan Africa and Eastern Europe.
There was, however, specific acknowledgement that the impacts of forced marriage can be multiplied when dealing with cross-jurisdictional issues relating to immigration, resulting in, for instance, a fear of leaving the situation on the part of the sponsored spouse or the inability to report the problem if a person is taken outside of her or his principal jurisdiction of residence and forcibly confined or has papers confiscated by the offending parties during the process of being forced into marriage. A number of the speakers touching upon the complications of immigration law stressed that further liberalisation (rather than increased restrictions) tends to alleviate some of the factors that lead to forced marriages for the purposes of obtaining status.
Other legal matters covered related to the issue of jurisdictional divides in the case of dual nationals, and an examination of the efficacy of some remedies instituted in certain European jurisdictions, such as, raising the minimum age of sponsorship, or making the participation in solemnizing a forced marriage a crime. The criminalization debate is still a hotly contested issue, though the consensus in the U.K. thus far has officially remained against creating a specific criminal act. There are those who strongly advocate for criminalization as an empowering tool for survivors and for raising awareness of the issue, while others contend that it may force the problem even further underground as young people may fear criminalizing their families.
While part of the symposium on forced marriages focussed on what learnings might be of use in developing policies, responses and supports in the Canadian context, there were a number of speakers who spoke from an international and human rights perspective. The following four transcripts and audio recordings of selected portions of the agenda cover the experience of a survivor of forced marriage, legal and State responses at local and international levels, and perspectives from a community activist attempting to bridge anti-racism work with the need to protect women’s, children’s, and victims’ rights.
Selected transcripts in PDF format:
Transcript 1: Uzma Shakir, Keynote Address, Day 1
Transcript 3: Sara Hossain, Transnational Aspects of Forced Marriages
Corresponding audio files in MP3 format:
Audio File 1: Uzma Shakir, Keynote Address, Day 1
Audio File 3: Sara Hossain, Transnational Aspects of Forced Marriages