UN: Human Rights Council panel discusses forced marriages

InfoSud / Human Rights Tribune
More than 15 women groups attended a panel discussion during the Human Rights Council Sixth Session on 20 September 2007, to highlight the growing problem of forced marriages among women and girls as young as eight.
Lois Herman of Women’s United Nations Report Network, who chaired the discussion, said their main concern is the youth of the victims and the lack of existing legal instruments to protect them. “There is more denial than documentation,” she said.
Yet according to Ms. Herman, it is the documentation of specific cases that leads to government action. “When you can show pictures from a respected resource like the BBC as documentation for these abuses, then you have a case,” she said.

Afton Beutler, of the Worldwide Organization for Women agreed. “Naming and shaming governments won’t work. You get the facts, and then you get the people. Statistics help the government” see and take action, she said.

Many countries have age old traditions of arranged marriages but Lois Herman says forced marriage is different. “Forced marriage is a union between two people where one of them has not given free and full consent.” She cited several instances, countries like Turkmenistan, where young girls are kidnapped and raped. Once raped, they are considered ‘spoiled’ and must marry their attacker to save family honor or avoid being an economic burden on the family.

And should the young woman try to flee a forced marriage, she is often killed to save the family’s tarnished honor. “Women are seen as dispensable, while honor is not,” said Ms. Herman.

In Pakistan, blood feuds may be settled by using a daughter as a bargaining chip and giving her away to be married, Herman said.

In Turkey, there was the well-publicized case of the mysterious ‘virgin suicides’ in 2006. The U.N. Special Rapporteur on violence against women, Yakin Ertürk, herself a Turk, discovered that a new criminal code brought such heavy punishment to honor crimes, that instead of killing the woman, families were forcing her to commit suicide.

In Afghanistan, many young women immolate themselves to escape being forced to marry to settle a drug debt. In China, young brides are stolen from neighboring countries because of the lack of local women. The problem even exists in the West among immigrant communities where young girls are sent to their home country on holiday and then forced into marriage.

Norway attempted to address this problem by establishing a Forced Marriage Hotline, run by the Oslo Red Cross and publicly funded. Women may call if worried that they are being forced into marriage. “This hotline has been extremely valuable,” said Director General Arni Hole of the Norwegian Ministry of Children and Equality in a September 2007 statement.

Other countries have taken similar steps of action. The U.K. Home and Foreign Offices created a Forced Marriage Unit in 2005 to provide confidential advice and assistance for those at risk of being forced into marriage overseas. The Unit deals with 250-300 cases a year and over 5,000 inquiries, stated a UK press release.

While some governments are cracking down on the practice of forced marriage, many countries have yet to sign or ratify international documents which would make the abuse illegal. International instruments such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the Beijing Platform and the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) were created, in part, to protect women from such violations of their basic human rights.

10 October 2007