Anecdotal Report on the Incidence of Forced Marriage in Western Canada


Objective of the Study

The objectives of the study are to explore the incidence of forced marriage occurring in Western Canada through the collection of anecdotal data (stories from Alberta and British Columbia) and to document relevant information, including services available for those in forced marriages, which will help with policy and program development.

Forced Marriage in Canada

Background of the Issue

Forced marriage is a little known, complex and largely unreported reality in Canada mainly because it is often shrouded in a wall of silence. There are many reasons for the silence including:

a) a vague awareness within ethno-cultural communities that it is not an acceptable practice in Canada, although not everyone is aware that it can violate civil and criminal laws in Canada;

b) a silent agreement among many members of the communities that it is the right thing to do “under the circumstances”; and

c) hesitation in reporting for fear that the community may be stigmatized and/or that someone may get into trouble.

Young men and women trapped in such marriages are afraid of being ostracized and/or being censured by the family and community. They worry about tradition, shame, and family honour and are also afraid of creating problems for their parents by bringing the situation to the attention of the authorities. Hence forced marriages go unreported most of the time, and remain a hidden reality.

In addition, until very recently, this issue did not get much attention from Canadian authorities and society. Not much has been done in this area partly because of lack of awareness and possibly also because of concern with offending cultural sensitivities of ethno-cultural communities in Canada. Forced marriage is often confused with arranged marriage and so considered a cultural practice and a private family matter not open to public scrutiny. Because of the history of cultural imperialism by western countries, there tends to be a disinclination to say or do anything that may be construed as cultural imperialism. To date only a few cases appear to have come to the attention of the public and authorities. It is very difficult to determine in many cases whether there was parental persuasion or the victim was truly forced. When Canadian-born ethnic minority girls are taken abroad and married off, that marriage remains legally valid in the absence of a court ordered annulment, even though it may be socially unacceptable to many Canadians. Generally only abused women talk about their plight.

This issue of forced marriage is not only an issue in Canada; it is an issue world-wide, found across the boundaries of all cultures, religions, regions and periods of history. The English Common Law on which Canadian marriage law is based has historically contained references to marriages that took place under duress as a ground for annulment. Today, there are reported incidents of forced marriages in all western societies in Europe and North America. This issue is embedded within the larger question of human rights facing all western democracies as they struggle to balance the rights of individual citizens with the rights of ethno-cultural communities with what some see as “cultural preservation”. Edwige Rude Antoine in Strasbourg (2005) published a study of forced marriage in 28 European countries mainly within the South Asian, Middle Eastern, and African communities. In addition, the Annotated Bibliography on Comparative and International Law Relating to Forced Marriage (Dostrovsky, Nadine et al. 2007) gives a comprehensive account of forced marriage in western, Asian and African countries.

Concept of Forced Marriage Relevant for Ethno-Cultural Communities

(a) Forced marriage is usually viewed as an issue of the denial of a person’s right (especially, but not exclusively, a woman’s right) to choose her or his life partner. Recommendation 21 of the UN Committee on the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), states that “A woman’s right to choose a spouse and enter freely into marriage is central to her life and her dignity and her equality as a human being” without force or coercion.Footnote 1

However, in South Asian, Middle Eastern and African communities, women do not always have the right to choose their spouses or enter marriage with free and informed consent. In these communities, cultural traditions dictate that marriage be arranged. Partners for young people are almost uniformly chosen by others. Partner selection most often happens in gender segregated, patriarchal and family oriented societies, where the majority of young men and women do not date or socialize and so do not know how to choose and whom to choose. As they generally know very little about other eligible young people, the only logical option is to enter into an arranged marriage with a person of their family’s choice. Nonetheless, the expression “enter freely” remains important and relevant. Young people are conditioned to obey and to accept parental choice. Most of the time they accept to marry obediently out of propriety, knowing very little about their future spouse. They submit to their parents’ decision and will, because assertion of personal will is seen as selfish and improper. So the right “to choose” remains to a large extent a theoretical concept, as it does not work in practice in some societies. However, many parents will accommodate objections by their children to a particular marriage partner who is unacceptable to them.

(b) It is essential to understand that an arranged marriage is not a forced marriage because in the case of the former the young person has accepted the choice of their parents and the marriage is therefore consensual. But it is equally important to note that all forced marriages began as arranged marriages. It is hard to know in each individual circumstance what was involved in a person’s “acceptance” of an arranged marriage. If that marriage turns into a forced marriage, it is often hard to figure out at what point it became a forced marriage. In other words, it may be unclear at what stage force or coercion may have entered into the plans for an arranged marriage to turn it into a forced marriage. Although forced marriage and arranged marriage are not the same, the boundary between them may be ambiguous and fluid. For instance, the arranged marriage of a child-bride to an older man is generally a forced marriage as a child is not legally capable of giving consent. However, in communities where such marriages are the norm, people do not consider them as forced marriage.

(c) No one definition of forced marriage tells the whole story therefore any simple definition of forced marriage is likely not helpful in the context of ethno-cultural communities. It may be necessary to discuss situations beyond the core definition in order to understand forced marriage. Definitions put brackets around a reality leaving a lot beyond its boundaries. Provisionally, however, a forced marriage can be understood as a marriage where one or both spouses did not consent or gave consent under duress or trickery.

Complex Reality of Forced Marriage in Western Canada

There are many factors involved in forced marriage. The two main factors that influence forced marriage in Western Canada are economic and cultural factors.

Economic and Cultural Factors in Forced Marriage

Forced marriage is rooted in centuries old patriarchal socio-economic systems which are often maintained because they are confused with religion. The belief is so deeply rooted and emotionally charged that it is not easy to unravel all the factors involved.  To begin to understand the phenomenon, one has to look into various elements of these systems which give rise to certain traditions and myths, cultures and beliefs that are used to support forced marriage.

Cultural factors

Cultural factors include family loyalty, patriarchal authoritarian family structures, women’s subordinate position in society, vested interest in maintaining male privilege and belief that women are a burden and “property” to be disposed of for the family’s advantage or family honour. Parents wish to marry off their children within their own racialized, ethnic, religious, socio-economic status and linguistic groups. The fear that their children may not adhere to these constraints in a multi-cultural society drives the parents to force even under-age children to marry someone the parents choose. In some cases, adult children with a different sexual orientation are forced into heterosexual marriages to continue the family line and avoid bringing dishonour upon the family. So, parental fear, concern and worries play an equal role with parental power in sometimes forcing their children to marry someone they do not wish to marry.

Economic factors

Another important factor is poverty in Asian and African countries and the desire to escape it through migration to Canada. For example, many families force their daughters into an unwanted marriage with a Canadian citizen for the money they receive from the future sons-in-law. A marriage may also be forced as a means to get immigration for the whole family for economic reasons. In some other cases where the parents of the girls may be approached with a marriage offer that does not include the usual request to pay a dowry or expensive marriage gifts to her in-laws, they may force their daughters to marry an unwanted partner to save money.

Migration Experience

When people migrate to Canada, they carry many of their customs, beliefs and traditions with them. Living in Canada, there are other factors that get added to this mix of tradition, custom and beliefs, such as parental fears of assimilation. Parents may worry about the next generation losing their culture and faith and adopting the values of their peers -- by, for example dating, drinking, partying, losing their virginity – resulting in unacceptable choices that would threaten their children’s futures and the family’s honour. The perceived logical solution of many tradition-bound families, who are caring and loving families, is to choose a suitable spouse for them and to marry them young, willingly or unwillingly, before they reach the age of independent thinking, judging and making choices. Parents consider this to be for their children’s own good and long-term happiness.

Intergenerational Conflict

When families migrate to Canada, young children are socialized not only in their own traditional culture but also in the culture and values of Canada through their schooling and the influence of their peers. Here they learn about individual choice. Hence, they may not be as willing to accept their parents’ choice. But, for many of them, marriages are arranged according to their ancestral traditions and so conflict will arise. When such marriages are arranged, many of them successfully resist for a number of reasons (exemplified in the stories), but, as the stories also tell, many young women and men either unsuccessfully resist and then face the consequences of a forced marriage or capitulate. The stories also tell how and why and with whom such marriages are arranged and portray the picture of life within a forced marriage.

At the heart of this generational conflict is that, while parents and families remain attached and loyal to their ancestral culture and are sincerely convinced that they act in the best interest of their Canadian children, some young people become aware that individual choice is both a necessary condition of marriage and their right under Canadian law.

These are some of the unexplored structural and cultural factors that need to be taken into account in addressing the issue of forced marriage. They are hard to address. But as long as these factors remain inflexible, it will be very difficult to prevent the occurrence of forced marriage. The stories illustrate all of these issues: parents’ concerns for their children, choice, consent, but also force, poverty, greed, and desire for immigration. It is only through education, culturally-appropriate services and supports for parents and for victims, economic empowerment of dependent offspring and strict enforcement of women’s and children’s rights that these practices can be slowly changed. In the same communities, most people do not force their children to marry against their will and many do not approve of or support arranged marriage. These parents make reasonable accommodations within modern societies and see their children as persons to be guided while exercising autonomous choices, not as possessions to be disposed of at parental will.


Qualitative research methodology with a narrative approach was used in this project. This method was chosen as most suitable for a study about forced marriage because it captures people’s experiences and emotions and not just events in their lives. The research was conducted by interviewing service providers in order to gather information on forced marriage. No victims were approached because it is a highly sensitive topic. Service providers were identified from a list of organizations in Western Canada. The stories and other data on services provided, on general features of forced marriage and on respondents’ views on addressing the issue of forced marriage were collected through questionnaires that were analyzed. This report is prepared from the stories and other information received from service providers.

Structure of the Report


The information on forced marriage obtained from the interviews, is organized into three sections in this report.


The first section contains 22 stories of forced marriage collected through interviewing service providers. This section also contains some information on demographic characteristics of the subjects of the stories whenever available, specifically the age, gender, education, ethnicity and country of origin of the victims. As stated above, the data are then presented graphically for ease of reference and are not meant to be taken as statistical representations of forced marriage victims overall.

The stories presented here highlight the issues outlined in this introduction. They depict stories of women and men who were forced to marry under duress and threats. This section includes events that occurred in Western Canada of child marriage, telephone marriage, marriage between cousins, marriage with payment of bride price and overseas marriage. They portray the misery and helplessness of those trapped in forced marriages as well as the courage and independence of the victims, their efforts to escape and the support they receive. There are cases of marriage through fraud and monetary exchange as well as cases of marriage for immigration purposes, and in order to have a “slave” for household work.

The stories are presented as they were related by the service providers; hence, they differ in structure as details were provided by different narrators.


Several common themes emerging from an analysis of the stories are presented in this second section. These form the findings of the research. These themes bring out similarities in reasons, nature and consequences of forced marriage in the stories from three different locations in Western Canada (Edmonton, Calgary and Vancouver). The main themes, common to all the cases, are:

Hence, we conclude that victims of forced marriage all face similar issues and traumas no matter where they reside in Western Canada or what their background is.

Services Provided

This third section outlines the services provided or currently available to victims of forced marriage. It contains an account of services actually rendered to the victims and the services available to them. There is also an account of referrals made to government institutions and NGOs in order to seek help for the victims. Further, this section contains an identification of services that are needed but lacking in Western Canada.

Views of the Service Providers on Forced Marriage

This section outlines a number of ideas the service providers offered, about how to address the difficult issue of forced marriage in Western Canada. These may be grouped under six main categories:

While not all of these suggestions may be workable, they are important as indications of what is seen as needed by the service providers who are either frontline workers in the field or who deal with this issue in an educational, legal or medical capacity. They are the ones who are most knowledgeable about the extent of forced marriage in Canada and the consequences of it.


The four main conclusions are as follows:


Qualitative Research

The methodology used in this study is qualitative research conducted with narrative inquiry. This approach was chosen because the study of narratives is the study of ways in which human beings experience their world. Narrative is a powerful tool of knowing and sharing. The narrative approach captures the emotions of joy and pain and turbulence of life and not just events in a person’s life. This method is based on the idea that knowledge can be held in stories that can be relayed, stored, and retrieved. Nussbaum claims that the narrative style is uniquely qualified to present to the reader a deeper and richer view of life, which is not available in discursive reasoning. She argues that it can make a person a better juror and a better public thinker.

Hence, a narrative approach was considered to be uniquely suitable for understanding forced marriage in all its complexity; it permits a deeper understanding of the issue and is expected to contribute to a better basis for the development of informed and sensitive policies and programs. The main methodological procedure in this research was to collect stories of forced marriage by interviewing service providers who deal with cases of forced marriage.

Although this study is primarily a qualitative inquiry, some data is also presented graphically to facilitate viewing the findings. This by no means is representative of the extent of the occurrence of forced marriage, because the sample size is too small. However, it is indicative of what people in the field think is a growing trend in the area of forced marriage.

Specific Methodological Procedures Used

The following procedures were involved in conducting the current research study:

Research Team

A research team was put together for guidance and supervision of the project. It consisted of a sociologist, a chartered psychologist, a biological scientist working in a voluntary organization and a lawyer.

Project Director

A project director was hired who met the research team and planned all the details of the project.

Target Population

The data were collected from the communities where forced marriage is known or suspected to be taking place across the religious and cultural spectrum in Western Canada, viz. South Asian and Middle Eastern communities from rural and urban areas of those countries of origin.

Resource List

With assistance from the project research team, the project director prepared a resource list of organizations and government agencies in Alberta and British Columbia for the purpose of making contact with them for identifying and interviewing service providers. The service providers selected were from social services, the legal profession, immigration officials, schools, police, community workers and medical practitioners. Open-ended questionnaires were used for the interviews.


A draft questionnaire was prepared according to the guidelines set in the contract. The questionnaire was adapted from another questionnaire prepared earlier for a similar study conducted in Montréal and Toronto. It was reviewed by the project research team and tested in the field on five volunteers. It was submitted to the project authority for input before the questionnaire was finalized.

Organizations Contacted

Various governmental and non-governmental agencies that provide services to victims of forced marriage in Western Canada (Alberta and British Columbia) were contacted from the resource list prepared, with a request to identify service providers who deal with cases of forced marriage. Fifty organizations and individuals were identified out of which thirty-two were contacted. Twenty-two of them responded.

Collaborative Partnerships

Out of these organizations, an attempt was made to establish collaborative partnerships with two organizations each in Edmonton, Calgary and Vancouver for locating interviewers and training them. In Edmonton, the Inter-Cultural Action Committee for the Advancement of Women and the Welcome Center for Immigrants were willing to collaborate. In Calgary, the Alliance to End Violence and the Alberta Network of Immigrant Women agreed. In Vancouver, the India Mahila Association and the Surrey RCMP Victim Services agreed to collaborate. Partnerships were established with both organizations in each location.

Interviewer’s Training

Interviewers were hired and trained either by the project director or by the officer of the partner organization. Training guidelines were prepared emphasizing not only interview skills but also how to maintain confidentiality and to show respect for cultural sensitivity. All the names, dates and locations of the interviews were kept confidential to maintain the anonymity of the subject of the stories. All personal information will be destroyed according to project requirements.

The interviews were scheduled in Edmonton and Calgary in the first and second weeks of February 2010. In Vancouver, the interviews were to be done in the second and third week of February. However, the schedule varied depending on the availability and convenience of local interviewees. Data were recorded and organized according to themes emerging from the interviews, immediately following the interviews.

The Data

Twenty-two stories of forced marriage were collected. Information on services provided and available to victims of forced marriage was also recorded, as well as suggestions from service providers. The interviews were conducted either in person or through telephone interviews. Only six interviews were recorded on tape, as most respondents did not consent to be recorded. In transposing the stories, attempts were made to be true to the language and structure of the stories as narrated by the respondent. The only changes made were editorial or to shorten some of the stories.