Are forced marriages a form of modern-day slavery?
“I didn’t even think of what he was doing to me. I was told it's is a wife’s duty, to do what her husband tells...
In one of the old dictionaries I’ve been using since my school days, the definition for ‘forced marriage’ is:
“A marriage in which one or both of the parties is married without his or her consent or against his or her will.”
Growing up in Britain and in an Asian community, I’ve heard countless stories of young girls – at the young age of 16, even before they’ve received their exam results – being taken abroad for a ‘family holiday’, only to discover one evening that the very next day was their wedding. It even happened to one girl I went to school with.
However, it was interesting when I had a conversation about this with a friend the other day, and my mind paused when she said something about forced marriage being a form of modern slavery.
From my history lessons to the books I’ve read, slavery has always been associated with colonisation. When I think of slavery, I think about the struggle African-Americans have been through; ships carrying thousands of people across the seas to the West, and then apartheid. For the first time, I thought to myself: can forced marriage actually be a form of modern-day slavery?
I then heard about a young girl called Ana. She was 15 when she was married to a man twice her age and for five whole years, she suffered domestic violence. She was told by her mother and mother-in-law that it was a wife’s duty to tolerate the abuse and it was ‘normal’. She didn’t have any control over her life, suffered long-term abuse in her marriage, and wasn’t able to leave her husband or financially support herself.
Does this make Ana’s ordeal a part of modern-day slavery?
The answer is unequivocally yes.
Forced marriage is now being increasingly and officially recognised as a form of slavery, particularly in the UK. Around the world, there are estimated to be about 40 million people trapped in slavery via forced labour and forced marriages – a majority of these are girls and women.
It is slavery if the victim hasn’t given their genuine free and informed consent to enter the marriage. It is slavery if they’re being controlled through a sense of ‘ownership’ within the marriage, regardless of whether it is abuse, threats, or even being exploited through the force of doing domestic chores within the home or engaging in non-consensual sexual relations.
Despite the UK recognising forced marriages as a form of slavery, an investigation has discovered that thousands of women living in Britain, mostly hailing from South Asia, are trafficked into forced marriages to bring their foreign spouses to the UK. I read one case about a girl whose parents forced her to marry someone abroad, then forced her to work six days a week to reach the required threshold of sponsoring a foreign spouse to come to the UK.
Recently, a mother was convicted – the first ever conviction for forced marriages in England – for trafficking her 17-year-old daughter into a forced marriage to a Pakistani national. The victim was impregnated by the man when she was just 13, and was threatened with her passport being ripped up if she didn’t marry him. This is a momentous stage for many people in the UK and in the world. Despite being the crime being unreported and thousands suffering in silence, Britain has finally taken notice and done the right thing.
Another girl I know of – who was born and brought up in Britain, just like myself – is another victim of slavery through the means of forced marriage. I remember talking to her as she sat with her folded hands pressed against her mouth. She was forced to marry a distant relative back home, and was told to live there rather than coming back to Britain. She stayed with him for six months, and during those six months, she was subjected to physical abuse, emotional abuse (where her husband ridiculed her, called her names and even branded her as worthless), neglect and sexual abuse (she was forced to engage in sexual relations without her consent).
“I didn’t even think of what he was doing to me then. I was told this is a wife’s duty – to do what her husband tells her to do, and I didn’t have the knowledge that I could’ve, and should’ve, stood up for myself,” she sobbed as she recalled the experience.
Most victims, regardless of whether they can stand up to their perpetrators or not, find it extremely difficult to escape or leave them. More often than not, they are unable to support themselves financially, and also fear the reaction from their family and the society at large. Often, girls who leave their marriages and find themselves without support are vulnerable to other forms of slavery and exploitation.
The shocking thing that crops up from this investigation is that there are hundreds of thousands of people suffering in silence as slaves trapped – or trafficked – in forced marriages. The UK may have done the right thing by passing its first conviction in this crime, but the buck doesn’t stop there. After all, if the law protected the victims and punished the perpetrators the way it should, we would no longer have women – and some men – afraid of the prospect of becoming slaves in the modern age.