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

3. What remains to be done

3.1 The role to be played by government to counter forced marriage

The persons interviewed maintain that it is the government's duty to address the problem of forced marriage and to protect those who are threatened with it or are already its victims. They hope that government will enact legislation and regulations to counter this practice and take effective steps to make communities aware of the problems forced marriage causes and to advise them that a forced marriage is an infringement of human rights prohibited under many United Nations conventions. The service providers point out that the Government of Canada has ratified several international conventions for the promotion and protection of human rights, women's rights and the rights of minors.

These include the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW/CEDEF) adopted in 1979 by the United Nations General Assembly as a universal benchmark of the rights of women. Article 16 of the Convention specifically provides that men and women are equal in matters relating to marriage and family relations. It specifies that men and women have the same right to enter into marriage, the same right to freely choose a spouse and to enter into marriage only with their free and full consent, the same rights and responsibilities during marriage and at its dissolution. It also stipulates that the betrothal and marriage of a child shall have no legal effect and all necessary action, including legislation, shall be taken to specify a minimum age for marriage and to make the registration of marriages in an official registry compulsory.

Canada has also ratified the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC), the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR). However, Canada has not signed or ratified the Convention on Consent to Marriage, Minimum Age for Marriage and Registration of Marriages, which came into force on December 9, 1964. Articles 1 to 3 of this Convention provide the following:

  • Article 1
    1. No marriage shall be legally entered into without the full and free consent of both parties, such consent to be expressed by them in person after due publicity and in the presence of the authority competent to solemnize the marriage and of witnesses, as prescribed by law.
    2. Notwithstanding anything in paragraph 1 above, it shall not be necessary for one of the parties to be present when the competent authority is satisfied that the circumstances are exceptional and that the party has, before a competent authority and in such manner as may be prescribed by law, expressed and not withdrawn consent.
  • Article 2
    • States Parties to the present Convention shall take legislative action to specify a minimum age for marriage. No marriage shall be legally entered into by any person under this age, except where a competent authority has granted a dispensation as to age, for serious reasons, in the interest of the intending spouses.
  • Article 3
    • All marriages shall be registered in an appropriate official register by the competent authority.

Forcing someone into marriage is not a specific criminal offence in Canada, although several of the general sections of the Criminal Code may apply. And contrary to the situation in several European countries, a marriage entered into under duress or the threat of duress does not result in any penalty under the law. Although Canada did not ratify the Convention on Consent to Marriage, Minimum Age for Marriage and Registration of Marriages, by enacting other laws and ratifying other conventions the Government of Canada made a commitment to take the necessary steps to abolish all forms of discrimination against women in all fields and to protect their basic rights.

Are laws alone sufficient, however, to protect victims of forced marriage and to combat that practice? According to the respondents, laws and legal instruments are important but cannot by themselves effectively deal with this problem. Should punitive action be taken against families that subject their children to forced marriage? Respondents claim that a distinction must be made between cases in which victims were abused or forcibly confined, held in the country of origin, abducted, raped or enslaved, and cases in which families only seek to do good by perpetuating a customary practice. They warn against judicial excesses. Some respondents were openly concerned about enacting legislation that would make it a criminal offence to force someone into marriage, as some European countries have done. They fear, on the one hand, that there would be abuses in the application of such laws, and, on the other, that the victims of undesired marriages or those threatened with such marriages would simply keep silent in order to protect their families.

Respondents mentioned the fact that the Government of Canada is not aware of the extent of the problem and that many cases remain unreported. How, they ask, can punitive action be taken against families if there are no complaints? They stress that victims are not always able to take the necessary steps to file a complaint and that there is not always sufficient evidence to determine whether abuse has occurred. However, they all agree that the government should earmark funds to create education programs, produce work tools and provide training for field workers.

I think the government should fund these assault programs. The organizations like CASSA can take a lead role and pilot some awareness building projects first and then, on a long term plan can be created for ongoing efforts and we will see the success rate, and then we will see if there is a more need. And then once the program is started, the community will become aware, and if we educate the parents more on this side, rather than actually the children, then, they don't want it, it's being forced on them, and if we educate that percentage of the population, then parents will start thinking about it. It's the same thing, working on chronic diseases... prevention information is easily available... and the rate of not falling sick is getting higher by following preventive measures... (Respondent K)

Another topic addressed by the study participants was spousal sponsorship and its impact on women who are in a position of dependency and a relationship of subordination with their husbands because they have been sponsored by them. This situation can hinder women's independence and strengthen the spouse's hold over them and thereby create an unequal relationship. This is the case with many women who met our respondents, who were married against their will and sponsored by their spouse and who, in addition, are victims of conjugal violence, making their lives a series of painful events than can leave them increasingly vulnerable.

[TRANSLATION] In terms of the government, it is a question of its policy in sponsorship cases. It should get rid of the three-year period and grant permanent resident status to individuals who are sponsored. Because the women who come to see us, who are experiencing conjugal violence, you see that, at bottom, they are vulnerable because they are in a dependent situation precisely as a result of their status as a sponsored family member, which ties them to their husbands and can be used by the husbands for all sorts of blackmail, threats and humiliation. And on top of that they were married by force. The whole package! (Respondent D)

The following account shows the power imbalance that characterizes such relationships:

She's a permanent resident she was sponsored by her husband. This is the other thing that we're always dealing with women who — I actually had a case before you came in — where a woman was telling me that she doesn't want to live with her husband anymore and upon probing her a little bit more she said that he's threatening to take her back to Pakistan because she's up for citizenship, force her to take her back to Pakistan - because he knows the system and he knows that he has more ways of controlling her there than he does here. And she said she doesn't get along with him so in that situation she's — and this is not the first time that's happened. One of my clients was taken back to India under the pretext that he's a changed man. As soon as they got back to there, he literally said to her, where are your Canadian laws now? (Respondent I)

In view of these marital relationships that destabilize women, service providers would like to see the government take the necessary steps to allow sponsored women who are victims of violence not to remain under the control of an abusive spouse. This issue has already been submitted to the government by women's rights groups, but according to the respondents, women today, especially those who were forced into marriage and sponsored, are still suffering from this double situation that makes them so vulnerableFootnote 5.

As far as the role to be played by government institutions regarding the problem of forced marriage, respondents agreed that it is only by developing awareness in the larger society that we will counter or lessen the practice of forced marriage, especially considering that the problem is largely unknown in Canada. They insist on the fact that work must be done at a broader level and that the means used should be informative, educational and preventive.

3.2 The role to be played by civil society

When questioned about the role that associations in civil society should play in connection with forced marriage, the respondents answered that they already play an important role because persons confronted with forced marriage turn to them first, and while this role must not only be maintained but enhanced by social workers, the burden should not be borne by this sector alone but by all sectors of society.

Considering that these are frontline associations and that they are most aware of this problem, as they are of many other problems, we were told that they should alert the rest of society and draw its attention to forced marriage and its impact on the lives of young girls and women who experience such an ordeal.

One of the respondents, who has worked daily with women and young girls for many years, criticizes the lack of services available to them. She said that this was because girls are generally considered to have fewer problems than their brothers. According to this service provider, this is a false perception because young girls have problems of their own, but they are not as visible because most often they occur within the family. In meetings and group discussions in which this respondent participates, she tries to draw the attention of social and government representatives to the special problems of young girls.

[TRANSLATION] Last year, when we started to work on the City of Montreal's equity policy, you know the City of Montreal's equity policy, there were a lot of municipal councillors, agencies and federations, to produce the document about equality between men and women throughout the city, the question of girls and services came up again. In June last year, we had the general meeting of the Table de concertation jeunesse. I asked, for this current year, that work be done on providing services for girls because most often we work with boys, for example with street gangs or alcohol or drugs, it's more the boys, and those are the issues that get the attention, we are always talking about street gangs, crime, intimidation, drugs. And for them, we organize workshops, sports to channel their energies, competitive teams, and the girls have other kinds of problems. Yes, there are girls who are in street gangs, who are into drugs, but that's a minority, a majority of girls have other kinds of problems and we must not marginalize them when it comes to those problems because that is just as important, just as disastrous for their health, their life, and everything – (Respondent F)

Some of the respondents consider that the organizations which take in young girls and women who are under duress from their families should act as intermediaries to facilitate a dialogue between those women and their families so that the families may learn to respect their refusal. This was done by one respondent who, although she failed in some cases, managed to have parents change their minds in other cases. On the other hand, other respondents claim that from the moment a power relationship exists in an atmosphere of violence, it is not a good idea to have parents and children meet. Organizing a meeting between young girls and their families would subject those girls to another ordeal.

Some respondents said that it would be important for workers who do not have training in intercultural relations to get such training or to call in colleagues who are qualified in this area or resource persons who share the same culture as the young girls. According to these respondents, lack of knowledge of certain cultural references and sensibilities may lead to bias and misunderstanding and compromise efforts to help.

A person in charge of a women's centre who often tries to get local schools in the area involved in jointly organizing activities for the benefit of young girls has already started sensitizing some school professionals to the problem of forced marriage in the same way she has done with the municipality. She feels that it is important for women's centres, community organizations and schools to jointly develop an information and awareness program for young girls to educate them about problems that concern them, including forced marriage. As with education and awareness programs for boys about drugs, alcohol, physical and sexual violence, etc., this respondent claims that other programs should be developed that deal specifically with problems faced by young girls.

[TRANSLATION] It takes awareness programs developed by organizations and schools... and these programs must be recognized like the others, programs that deal with forced marriages, physical violence against young girls, their isolation, the excessive control by parents over young girls... Listen, because the schools always focus on learning and success. Well now they are starting to talk about how in order to succeed, we have to solve the students' other problems, children should not be withdrawn, should not be sad, so they will learn better. We are starting to see that other social factors influence students' success. Certainly the schools, particularly in our community, their priority is gangs. It is always students who have problems who attract attention, they are the ones targeted by interventions, it is not the silent majority with its problems... The one you see who is aggressive, he gets attention right away. But you have to deal with all social problems that have an impact on the lives of students... At the local school the police put on a play dealing with sexual violence. All the students attended. They made room for the police to produce their play and educate youngsters about sexual violence. The same thing could be done for forced marriages. (Respondent F)

Special vigilance is required in schools to detect signs that youngsters may be subject to duress. This is what a psychotherapist recommends to his colleagues. He says that professionals in schools are not yet aware of the problem of forced marriage. It is still very novel in that context, as it is in many others. Because this psychotherapist is beginning to gain experience with this problem after dealing with several cases and because he is slightly ahead of his colleagues, he gives them advice.

[TRANSLATION] In terms of the problem of forced marriage, we should play the same role as we play for abuse cases, regardless of the situation. We are the ones who see students the most in a day. We are there for 7 to 8 hours, we see them live, we're in the cafeteria, in class, everywhere, we try to be as vigilant as possible and this is often the message I give other workers... I became a coach for many people, I've been here for twelve years and I did a little elsewhere before — but everyone will have to be on the lookout for this problem as for all the others. Internal expertise cannot be developed because we cannot meet all needs, there's no sense to that, but we'll have to develop a service because we intervene a lot in crisis situations, when a girl breaks up with her boyfriend, a death, an illness, a father who has just learned that he has cancer and will die, but these situations, as in the case of forced marriage, you have to be there, have regular workers with whom youngsters can identify. (Respondent G)

For civil society organizations to be able to deliver proper services to persons threatened with a forced marriage or to those who want to escape from an undesired marriage, they must have sufficient means, tools and financial resources. These are severely lacking in this environment, in the unanimous opinion of the respondents. In fact, the workload is always too heavy for the human resources available in these organizations and the funds they have are insufficient. Considering the lack of training and tools in this area in Canada, some workers use educational material developed in Great Britain, a society that has addressed this matter seriously for several years now.

Forced marriages in the UK has been a place which we have always looked up to - so we have always kind of planning referred materials, training materials, to train the service providers, we have used their safety planning stuff, we have used their media resources and they have come up with a very innovative media campaign and we have actually kind of used that in our presentation. So we were kind of in touch with them... (Respondent N)

The respondents say that it is by combining their efforts that the various sectors of society, public and parapublic institutions, associations, women's centres, etc. will be able to meet the challenge of countering forced marriage. They all stress that government and civil society must cooperate concretely and share their knowledge and expertise to give effective support to people going through the ordeal of a forced marriage.

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