August 12, 2021

“New York Officially Bans Child Marriage, Only Sixth State in the U.S. to do so.” You might picture this headline on a yellowing newspaper in the archives of a public library. But in actual fact it appeared online, less than a month ago. And yes, you read it correctly. New York is only the sixth American state to ban child marriage, meaning there is still a legal pathway to marrying a minor in 44 states.

Child marriage is merely a subset of the wider problem of forced marriage, which is staggering in scale. In 2016, the International Labour Organization found that “15.4 million people were living in a forced marriage to which they had not consented”. 37% of those victims are under the age of 18, and 44% of those children were “forced to marry before the age of 15 years”. “While men and boys,” the report states, “can also be victims of forced marriage,” 88% of victims are female. That figure rises among child victims of forced marriage: 96% were girls.

For me, the subject of forced marriage is personal. When I was living in Kenya, my father arranged for me to marry a man I had never met. His name was Osman Moussa. He was 27. When we were introduced, only six days before the marriage, I found that he was bald, dim and expected me to give him six sons.

Before the nikah ceremony, which would legally wed us, I begged my father to reconsider. I had no interest in the man he had chosen for me and dreaded a lifetime with him. My father insisted and when I continued to resist, he reminded me of my place. In the end, my father married me to Osman when I wasn’t even there — which might have been an issue had my participation been a matter of concern. But the arrangement was a mere transfer of ownership from one man to the next; my presence, let alone my consent, was not required.

Fortunately for me, I was not a child when this happened. I was 22 and had the self-confidence to flee to the Netherlands to escape my future with Osman. What if I had been 15, without the wherewithal or determination to flee?

But while my story might sound exotic, forced marriages and child marriages do not occur only in far-away countries. They are happening in the West today. This April, Unchained At Last, an organisation fighting child and forced marriages in the United States, released a study that found “nearly 300,000 minors, under the age of 18, were legally married in the US between 2000 and 2018”. The victims’ religious and ethnic backgrounds varied, but the vast majority were girls. Some were as young as 10.

In the United Kingdom, the situation is hardly any better. Here, child marriage is “thriving”; according to official data, between 2008 and 2017 more than 2,740 minors were married in England and Wales — a disturbing figure which doesn’t include minors wed in traditional ceremonies or taken abroad for the ceremony. Karma Nirvana, a British charity, recently reported “it had seen a 150% increase in teenagers calling about forced marriage since lockdowns began on March 23”. They expect that figure to rise now that the UK has removed most of its Covid-19 restrictions and gatherings are allowed to take place.

It’s encouraging, then, that UK introduced a bill this year that would close the child marriage loophole, which allows 16 and 17-year-olds to marry, with their parents’ permission. Health Secretary Sajid Javid, for what it’s worth, has committed his support, stating that “child marriage is child abuse”. Meanwhile, several states in the US are also fighting to end this practice within their borders; eleven states introduced legislation this year that would ban all marriages for those under 18. (New York and Rhode Island have already succeeded.)

All this has caused me to reflect on my own experiences and the countless stories I’ve heard from women and girls who have come to my Foundation seeking to escape or prevent a forced marriage. But at the heart of each of their tragic stories lies a simple question: what constitutes a marriage?

These days, in much of the Western world, it is a legal union of two human beings in pursuit of love, companionship and personal fulfilment. It is an agreement into which both parties willingly enter and from which they may leave if the relationship breaks down. The word “marriage” conjures up ideas of romance, love, desire, but also of partnership, posterity and security.

But for those legally locked in marriages they didn’t want, the word has a very different meaning. Fraidy Reiss, the founder of Unchained At Last, was forced into a marriage in 1995 when she was 19 years old. It quickly turned abusive. She came from an ultra-Orthodox Jewish community and eventually escaped her abuser, which led her family to shun her. When I asked her about it, she told me: “The day I was forced into my so-called marriage to a stranger, I lost all sexual, reproductive and financial rights. My family handed me over to the stranger for a lifetime of rape, forced motherhood and domestic servitude. What part of that sounds like a ‘marriage’?”

Naila Amin was forced into a marriage with her 28-year-old cousin when she was just 15-years-old. Her parents brought her from New York to Pakistan for the ceremony and left her there. With the help of the US State Department, she was able to escape about five months later.

“I can only explain my marriage as a gun to my head,” she told me. “I literally had no choice but to be married or die as a result. I was a prisoner in my own body. Even though it belonged to me, it wasn’t mine.”

My friend Yasmine Mohammed escaped a forced marriage to an al-Qaeda terrorist in Canada. I recently asked her on my podcast how she viewed her relationship. Did it really constitute a marriage?

“Absolutely not. The reason is because I don’t constitute a human being, so I am a thing. I am a possession that is owned by my family and I am given to him for him to now own.”

Humans beings — often young girls — treated as property. Individuals unable to leave a situation on their own accord. These descriptions call to mind another institution which also dates back to ancient times: slavery. From antiquity onwards, countless civilisations have been built upon slavery. And it still exists in many forms today, including in these so-called marriages.

Because when an adult man — whether he is in his 20s or 50s — marries an 11-year-old girl, she inevitably gains all the essential attributes of a slave: she has no real power to leave — unless she accepts total destitution, permanent ostracism, or even honour violence. She is subject to the arbitrariness and capriciousness of an authority with absolute power over her life: her husband. And she is profoundly vulnerable to physical, sexual or emotional abuse.

Behind these forced marriages lie any number of dark motives. Girls may be trafficked, perhaps after false employment promises made to families living in dire poverty, perhaps after being kidnapped. Sometimes, a girl is married to satisfy a debt. Sometimes, a girl is married to solidify a certain tribal alliance. Sometimes, a girl is married to protect a family’s honour.

Sometimes, a girl is forced to marry the man who raped her because no one else will marry such a “tainted” girl. I’ve seen first-hand how families pressure women and girls into marriage. There are many possible motives, but the manipulation — and the absence of true consent — is a constant.

In cases of forced marriage, particularly where honour plays a cultural role, extreme coercion can be brought to bear to ensure compliance by one or both parties. It is true that men can also be the victims of honour violence (particularly as it pertains to sexual minorities), but in general women are the more common victims: they’re generally seen as embodying the sexual honour of their tribe and community through their perceived sexual purity. Hence the need to marry them off quickly and quietly.

“Marriage” is, of course, a misnomer for these horrific situations. For a marriage to be an ethical union between two free parties, both persons have to make the decision without duress and through the use of reason. Preventing the formation of such marriages, like ending slavery, is an imperative of decency and humanity.

Yet, this year, headlines like “Victory Against Child Marriage in New York State” contrast starkly with others, like this: “Some NC lawmakers let child marriage ban stall because they or someone they know married as minors”. In North Carolina, children as young as 14 (the legal age to marry in North Carolina if a girl is pregnant) are being forced into “marriages”.

Last month, Judy Wiegand came forward to testify for a ban of child marriages in North Carolina, recounting her own experiences of marrying in northern NC in 1996, at the age of 15. Her husband turned 18 soon after they wed and became her “guardian”. As a minor, she was not able to “go to medical appointments by herself, she needed [her husband’s] permission to be on birth control, which he denied, and she couldn’t sign for utilities, rent an apartment or get a driver’s license without his approval”.

Yesterday, the NC House considered the “SB 35” bill, which would raise the age of marriage to sixteen, with no more than a four years age difference allowed for those marrying at sixteen or seventeen. The bill passed unanimously — but despite these efforts towards progress, this bill remains inadequate. Sixteen and seventeen-year-olds are still minors and also need protection, as illustrated by Judy Wiegand’s experiences above.

Indeed, it’s striking that the North Carolina House passed over their own brightline bill, HB 41, which would raise the age of marriage to 18 years old, no exceptions, to instead let the focus sit on the watered down SB 35. We would not ignore a brightline bill if it were a slavery ban that was stalling in North Carolina — or any of the other 44 states where child marriage is still legal.

So perhaps what’s needed here is a shift in terminology. To reflect what’s truly happening when a family offers up their 12-year-old daughter to a 27-year-old distant cousin — and to stop people turning a blind eye for fear of being culturally insensitive — we need to call child marriages what they are: slavery.