Report on the Practice of Forced Marriage in Canada: Interviews with Frontline Workers
Exploratory Research Conducted in Montreal and Toronto in 2008

2. Analysis of Data Collected from Field Workers

2.4 Reasons for forced marriage

Numerous reasons that vary according to the social, cultural, economic, political and legal context explain the existence of planned and potentially forced, marriage. They may be cumulative or they may overlap. The respondents identified a number of reasons that seem to be at the basis of these marriages.

2.4.1 Because marriage is a social act, a family matter

Some parents do not ask their children for their opinion when they consider it appropriate for them to get married. This is most often the case when young girls are concerned, but also sometimes with young men, because parents consider marriage a social act that is a matter for the nuclear or extended family and even the community, and they consider it their duty to have their children marry. As far as the parents are concerned, this role is fundamental and failure to perform it would be negligent or even a dereliction of duty on their part.

First, a marriage is usually arranged between two families or between the girl's family and a young or older man. The young girl is informed of the plan at the beginning, along the way or only when the wedding is scheduled to be held either in the country of settlement or the country of origin. When the marriage is solemnized in the country of origin, often during an apparent holiday trip, the real reason for which is kept secret by the parents or social circle, young girls are faced with a fait accompli.

2.4.2 To protect young women

Parents use forced or arranged marriage to "place" their daughters because they are still considered to be subject to parental authority in some families and therefore regarded as minors. Accordingly, parents feel they have to protect them and act in their best interests by having them married, and preferably at a young age. In doing so they seek to ensure a solid future for their daughters by marrying them to men whom they consider to be best for them as knowledge of the suitor's family or relatives gives them the feeling that their daughter will be protected. In fact, they entrust their daughter to a husband and in-laws whom they trust and with whom they have a ties of honour, which they see as a guarantee of security and proper treatment for the young wife among in-laws who will not treat her as an outsider.

2.4.3 To save family honour

Among immigrants, some families from conservative backgrounds follow the arranged marriage and forced marriage model. Fearful of seeing their children wed "strangers", especially members of the majority culture or other minority groups considered to have different cultures or religions, parents pressure their children to marry within the family or community circle to prevent assimilation within the host society. A forced or arranged marriage thus becomes a matter of identity and is a bulwark for these families against assimilation and the loss of identity markers.

In fact, marriage is the institution in which family honour is most strongly invested, and it is through marriage that a person's and family's social standing is maintained. It is therefore an absolute imperative. Failing to perform that duty can jeopardize the very foundations of the family bond, and individuals who evade that duty risk being shunned.

2.4.4 The family is in exile

Marriage that is endogamous, in religious or cultural terms, is practised by families in exile as an extension of their country of origin. This model is based on the preservation of the bonds within a related group beyond geographic borders. Matrimonial alliances are what keep the dispersed family alive, and endogamous unions are based on networks of ongoing contacts with members who remained in the country of origin or who have settled in other immigrant societies. Transnational contacts are facilitated by modern means of communication that eliminate distancesFootnote 2. Accordingly, arranged or forced marriages are used as a means to have family members or those in a membership group immigrate to Canada through sponsorship by the spouse who is already settled here. This results in transfers of persons from there to here and perpetuates transnational contacts.

2.4.5 To comply with a religious precept

Some Muslim families erroneously believe that marrying their children even without their consent is a religious precept. Because of a literal reading and rigid interpretation of the Koran and the Hadith, certain segments of the Muslim population consider arranged and forced marriage a religious duty, thereby betraying the very essence of the message. That belief arises out of their confusion of cultural practices with religious principles.

This confusion partly explains the fact that forced marriage is generally associated with Islam in Western public opinion, but the survey responses show that it also exists in families belonging to other religions. Young girls and women from Hindu, Jewish and Christian Catholic, Protestant or Orthodox families whom our respondents met were also facing forced marriage.

I would like to talk about countries of origin. First of all, many people when they speak with me about process and my clientele - they leap to the conclusion that it must be predominantly Muslim countries. I mean there are other countries – a lot of non-Muslim countries as well, which might surprise some people. I try to dispel sort of anti-Muslim attitudes. (Respondent P).

2.4.6 To control women's sexuality

Forced marriage is also a way of controlling women's sexuality. Some parents see forced marriage as a way of protecting their daughters against the risk of romantic relationships, and most importantly against sexual relations outside marriage. Above all, they are seeking to avoid pregnancies considered to be illegitimate that could result from this type of relationship. As far as many families are concerned, their reputation depends on the proper sexual behaviour of their members, especially the females. The patriarchal standards that are still valued in these families are reproduced in the society in which they settle. One of those standards is the duty to preserve virginity, which arises out of the desire to control women's bodies in order to preserve family honour, and thus patriarchal power. Vigilance on this point of honour is strict and a forced marriage, preferably an early one, is the best defence against any challenge to that honour.Footnote 3

2.4.7 Socio-economic factors

There are sometimes social and economic factors surrounding forced marriage. It may allow two families or two clans to forge an alliance or to strengthen bonds and solidarity between groups. Families that opt for a marriage with first cousins are trying to remain within the group and preserve property and inheritance rights that might exist.

2.4.8 A guarantee against poverty

Poverty is one of the main causes of forced marriage. For some poor families, the marriage of a daughter to a man who is better off is both a way of giving her access to a higher standard of living than they can offer and a way of securing a nest egg in return for a dowry. Some young women who have sought and received assistance from workers in shelters for victims of violence were still underage when their parents married them off to men much older and richer than themselves. These were girls from countries in Latin America or the West Indies whose parents, because of their extreme poverty, "sold" them, in return for cash, to French-speaking Quebecois men. One of these young girls was barely 13 years old when she was married, then sponsored and brought to Montréal where she was subjected to sexual violence.

[TRANSLATION] Yes! I have in fact taken in several women who were forced into marriage. There were two cases that really struck me. The first was a girl from (a country in the West Indies). She was 13 years old at the time and was forced to marry a 49-year-old man. He was a Canadian (francophone Quebecer) who went on vacation to (a country in the West Indies). He met the girl. He asked a friend from Quebec who was there whether he knew her and so on, and ultimately the man went to see the girl's parents. He offered them money. So that was forced, in my opinion, in the sense that the family, which was very poor, was in economic need. So they accepted $5,000 U.S. in exchange for letting the girl marry him. There was one condition in the marriage contract, which was that the family asked the man not to touch the girl sexually before she was 15, which he did not abide by. We believe that steps were undertaken for her immigration and the husband sponsored her, brought her here and once that young girl was here she was subject to violence - sexual violence and physical violence. (Respondent B)

This respondent continued with a second case that disturbed her, similar to the preceding case, of another young girl from another country in the West Indies from a poor social and economic background, who was given in marriage by her family to a man from the North.

[TRANSLATION] There was another young girl from XXX who married a man who was 59 years old; she was 15, and I don't know whether it could be called forced, but I would actually say it was forced because of the economic situation in the country. The man travelled to (a country in the West Indies), he was a man who was well off financially, he was retired from the university, he had a good pension. He met the young girl when she was 15 years old and her mother accepted this marriage... he gave the family $15,000 U.S. (Respondent B)

These two examples necessitate some deconstruction of the social representation of forced marriage, where it is seen as a practice unique to societies in the South or to groups who come from there and settle in Western societies. In fact, it is not uncommon for men from Western societies to travel to the South in order to "buy" girls whom they make into sex slaves. According to the respondent, the two marriages mentioned above were concluded with the knowledge of Canadian consular officersFootnote 4.

2.4.9 To deal with the consequences of pregnancy out of wedlock

Cases of families who force their young girls into an undesired marriage to repair the "mistake" of pregnancy out of wedlock and thereby avoid losing face are also mentioned. Several women who fled to battered women's shelters hoping to find protection from conjugal violence told social workers that they had been forced by their parents to marry the father of the child conceived out of wedlock. Those marriages took place in Latin American countries where the young women had had sexual relations with men with whom they were not planning to spend their lives. When they found they were pregnant, they told their parents, who compelled them, despite their protests, to marry the father of the child they were expecting so that their reputation would not be damaged. Violence ensues rapidly in these couples and continues when they settle in Canada. While the cases reported to us here concern Latin American families, it must be noted that this strategy of repairing a mistake to save honour is used by families in other regions of the world.

[TRANSLATION] I have seen several women who were forced to marry because they became pregnant. Therefore socially, a woman who becomes pregnant must absolutely get married because of the family name, "what will they say", etc. I met several women who told me during their stay here that they went through with a forced marriage because they had no other choice. Getting an abortion was unthinkable and going to live alone was impossible, so once the parents were informed of the pregnancy, right away it was "you have to get married"…. So, I'm talking about women from Colombia, Mexico, etc. and when they speak about the violence they have experienced, it comes from somewhere. We'll dig deeper and discover that it was a forced marriage because they were pregnant. (Respondent B)

Maintaining one's social standing by respecting customs is an important element in many cultures. The ultimate humiliation is pregnancy out of wedlock, since women's chastity is strongly valued as proof of the group's honour and any pregnancy outside marriage is felt to cause irreparable damage to the reputation of the young girls and their families. A forced marriage is considered the only way to preserve everyone's reputation.

Having considered a few examples of the reasons underlying forced marriage, we will now examine the pressures brought to bear by a girl's family and social circle to persuade her to comply with their decision.