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Forced Marriage in the United States

Updated on July 16, 2015

The Aljazeera America four part series "Till death do us part: The forgotten US victims of forced marriage" starts off with the story of Vidya Sri. She was a typical American teenager raised in New York. Typical that is until she started dating a non-Indian. Her father didn't want her to marry outside her own culture, so she was sent to India to live with relatives and told she couldn't come home until she agreed to marry a man chosen by her family. She never loved her husband and later divorced. Sri now works for an organization to help victims of forced marriages.

The Tahirih Justice Center, a nonprofit organization that helps immigrant women and girls who are victims of violence, says there were as many as 3,000 confirmed or suspected cases of forced marriage in the United States between 2009 and 2011. However, that number may only be the tip of the iceberg. Forced marriage isn't just something faced by those from immigrant backgrounds. Girls from very conservative religions, such as the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, are also at risk.

Victims of forced marriage often feel frightened and lonely. Many develop mental problems like depression and eating disorders. Some suffer abuse from both their husband and in-laws. Some commit suicide. Many are afraid to leave because they fear being ostracized by their families and communities. They worry about how to provide for themselves and their children.


At just 13, Sameem was forced to marry a complete stranger. When pregnant, two months later, she was made to return to Glasgow where she suffered further abuse from her family.


Forced Marriage Versus Arranged Marriages

Arranged marriages are marriages arranged by the families of the bride and groom. The couple might have little contact before getting married or they may regularly talk and perhaps even go on dates before they agree to marry. Many people come from cultures where marriages are arranged and will willingly enter into them. Forced marriages are arranged marriages where coercion or abuse is used because one or both parties is unwilling.

The UK organization Karma Nirvana, which aids victims of forced marriages and honor crimes explains the difference between forced and arranged marriages:

The pressure put on people to marry against their will can be physical (including threats, actual physical violence and sexual violence) or emotional and psychological (for example, when someone is made to feel like they’re bringing shame on their family).

An arranged marriage is very different from a forced marriage. A marriage in which families take a leading role, but both parties have the free will and choice to accept or decline the arrangement.

They do acknowledge there is a gray area:

There can be a very thin line between arranged marriage and forced marriage. A marriage can start out as ‘arranged’ but, if the person changes his/her mind at any time during the preparations – yes, even on the wedding day!! – They have the right to pull out. If the person is made to ‘keep their word’ to go ahead with the marriage, the marriage ceases to be a free choice and becomes ‘forced’. The difference between a forced marriage and an arranged marriage hinges on choice. There is no compulsion in an arranged marriage.

However, not all "forced" marriages involve force, coercion and abuse. Often young girls (and in some cases boys) feel pressured to get married. They may be kids aged 15 to 18 who are afraid of the prospect of being ostracized by their families and communities if they refuse to marry. So, while they never fight the marriage, and therefore never experience any kind of backlash, they're still being married against their will.

Journalism student Sarah Fournier who investigated forced marriages talked about her own family background:

I’m French and my grandmother was in the Jewish community in France, and got into sort of an arranged marriage—but she didn’t really have the choice to say no. She wasn’t threatened or anything, or what we describe in the article, but it’s a slippery slope

Cultural expectations alone can be a form of coercion and force.

Underage Marriages

You may wonder how 15 and 16 years olds could be married against their will because US states have minimum marriage ages that should protect children from forced marriages. However, most states will allow marriage at younger ages with parental consent and a judge's approval. Many judges will approve underage marriages because they want to be culturally sensitive.

Some teenagers are tricked into visiting their family's country of origin for a visit only to find that they'll be forced into marriage when they get there. They're often isolated with no money, their passports are confiscated and they don't have any access to telephones to ensure they have no means to escape the marriage.

The Extent of Forced Marriage

The AHA Foundation, which was founded by prominent Islam critic Ayaan Hirsi Ali (who was a victim of forced marriage) surveyed 100 students from City University of New York who came from MENASA cultures (Middle Eastern, North African, Southeast Asian) about the issue of forced marriage.

  • 88 said they knew at least one person who didn't want to get married but did anyway
  • 31 of those 88 said they knew three or more people who were forced to get married

Fraidy Reiss, from an ultra-Orthodox Jewish community was pressured to marry at the age of 19. She said:

There is intense pressure not to reach the age 20 and still be single. Because that’s a death sentence. You don’t want to be the old maid at age 20.

I Am Nujood, Age 10 and Divorced
I Am Nujood, Age 10 and Divorced

Nujood Ali's childhood came to an abrupt end in 2008 when her father arranged for her to be married to a man three times her age.


Honor Killings

In extreme cases, girls and women who refuse to enter forced marriages become victims of honor killings. The killings are often carried out by parents, siblings or uncles. In "Honor killing" under growing scrutiny in the U.S." CBS News mentioned a couple of horrifying examples:

20-year-old Noor Almaleki...was run down in broad daylight by her father who was angry that she had become too westernized and did not want to accept a marriage her father had arranged for her in the family's native Iraq

Phoenix police arrested the mother, father and sister of 19-year-old Aiya Altameemi after they allegedly beat her, restrained her and burned her for reportedly talking to a boy and refusing to enter into an arranged marriage with a 38-year-old man

Many police departments in the UK have Forced Marriage Units
Many police departments in the UK have Forced Marriage Units

What Can Be Done?

Some countries have laws against forced marriage. Currently, there are no federal laws against forced marriage in the United States. Some states and territories, California, District of Columbia, Maryland, Minnesota, Mississippi, Nevada, Oklahoma, Virginia, West Virginia and the Virgin Islands have laws against forced marriage. However, based on how the laws are written, they don't always cover children who's parents approve an early marriage. However, laws may not always be protective since many victims may not want to see family members charged with a crime. British activist Sameem Ali says:

No young child wants to put mummy and daddy in jail

More support for victims and potential victims is needed. Police, teachers and social workers, who serve areas with large at-risk populations, need to be trained to recognize and deal with forced marriages. Airport workers need to be trained to recognize possible victims being taken overseas. Doctors and nurses need to be trained to recognize pregnant teenagers who may be in forced marriages. Shelters, support groups and hotlines are needed. Education campaigns are needed to warn potential victims about the possibility of being taken overseas for a forced marriage. According to one charity:

It's vital that young people travelling abroad for a family wedding this summer realise it could be their own wedding they'll be going to and know who they should contact for help should they find themselves in danger.

If you want to do something to help, you can make donations to organizations that offer support services like the Tahirih Justice Center and the AHA Foundation.


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    • TheShadowSpecter profile image

      Jason B Truth 

      2 years ago from United States of America

      Oh, I wholeheartedly agree with you that nobody, not even an adult, should be forced into a marriage against their will. However, throughout my life, I have met a lot of adult women who got married before they were 18 and not necessarily to someone the same age as them, and they were able to tell me that they had much happier lives than the girls they knew in middle school and high school whose same-age boyfriends got them pregnant and then bailed on them. Deadbeat teenage fathers are like a disease in our country that is pulling too many young girls down into a vortex of poverty. I can understand state legislatures implementing the judicial approval requirement for minors in their marriage laws inasmuch as marriage is not a decision to be entered into lightly, but I think that doing away with one's right to marry before 18 years old completely will do more harm to our country than good. We have sufficient safeguards in our marriage laws across the country to prevent adolescent girls from entering into abusive marriages, and we do not want to give our government too much power to meddle into people's personal lives inasmuch as that would be a recipe for tyranny. I'm also not saying that anyone should be encouraged or pressured to marry before 18 years old either. I mean, it is bad enough when parents pressure their kids to get married right out of high school or in their early twenties like Jim Bob Duggar and Michelle Duggar did to their oldest son, Joshua. Now he is a major mess, and his wife, Anna, has become the laughingstock of the reality show industry. I believe that the charlatans in the scientific profession who promote junk science saying that men father mutated children as they grow older is what scares people into getting married and starting a family at a young age before they feel that they are ready for it. I know a lot of people who were fathered by older men and even older mothers, and they don't have any birth defects.

    • Learn Things Web profile imageAUTHOR

      J Jahan 

      2 years ago from California


      My feeling on it is that marriage is for adults and shouldn't be an option for anyone under 18. I also don't think anyone, even an adult, should ever be forced into a marriage against their will.

    • TheShadowSpecter profile image

      Jason B Truth 

      2 years ago from United States of America

      If you really want to go after a group of people who are harming young girls and bringing down this nation, go after deadbeat teenage fathers. They do worse things to adolescent girls than men over 21. At least these 20-something-year-old men marry these girls and support them when these girls find themselves pregnant, even when the baby isn't even their own. I'm sorry that I sound so angry, but this is just the way I feel and how I have experienced these issues throughout my life.

    • TheShadowSpecter profile image

      Jason B Truth 

      2 years ago from United States of America

      Okay. I get it. Nobody wants to be forced into a marriage with someone they don't even love. Especially when a girl is only 10 years old. However, I don't believe that outlawing all underage marriage is the solution to this problem with forced marriage, and many of these organizations like Unchained At Last and the one that you mentioned in your article believe that eliminating the parental consent and judicial approval provisions for minors in our marriage laws across the country is going to make the United States of America a better place to live. It won't. California tried doing this so many years ago, and this law banning underage marriage there for the most part was repealed. If you're talking about going after crime lords like Warren Jeffs, I'm all with you on that. However, I believe that the lives of Matt Koso and Crystal Guyer Koso would both have been better off if the criminal justice had kept their noses out of their business and their lives. I've seen many of the videos on YouTube of people seeking to outlaw any form of underage marriage throughout my nation, and I see more harm than good coming out of it inasmuch as the age of consent laws in my country are the most ridiculous in the world.

    • Learn Things Web profile imageAUTHOR

      J Jahan 

      5 years ago from California

      katwoman55, it's up to the media to address it more and make people aware.

      suraj punjabi, a lot of immigrant adopt Western ways but you always have some who want to hold onto the customs of the old country, which is very unfair to kids raised in a completely different culture.

    • suraj punjabi profile image

      suraj punjabi 

      5 years ago from jakarta

      Wow! This is just horrifying. This is quite commonplace in India, where my ancestors are from. But the fact that they do this in places like the US, UK and other developing countries is something I never dreamed of.

      I hope these perpetrators gets the punishment they deserve.

    • katwoman55 profile image

      Katheryn Markle 

      5 years ago from Chester, West Virginia

      These victims need a voice! Make mankind be accountable. Thank you for the article that was like a documentary to me, and that is what I prefer, so you kept my interest. Well written! Thanks, and a hubhug! :P LOL, Kat

    • Learn Things Web profile imageAUTHOR

      J Jahan 

      5 years ago from California


      I think Western Europe is the main place where it's taken seriously.

    • Hendrika profile image


      5 years ago from Pretoria, South Africa

      Shocking, I know it is happening in South Africa but nobody even mentions it.

    • Learn Things Web profile imageAUTHOR

      J Jahan 

      5 years ago from California


      It really is. It's something I've heard about from time-to-time but didn't think much about until NPR covered it in-depth.

    • amiebutchko profile image

      Amie Butchko 

      5 years ago from Warwick, NY

      It is crazy that this goes on. We know about it, have heard about it... but I don't think about it enough. An very worthwhile and informative hub.

    • Learn Things Web profile imageAUTHOR

      J Jahan 

      5 years ago from California


      It is surprising that there's no federal law but it isn't a widely known problem in the US yet. The UK has laws because there's so much awareness.


      Yes, the stories really are heartbreaking.

    • cameciob profile image


      5 years ago

      Very sad stories.

      Great article, though.

    • Learn Things Web profile imageAUTHOR

      J Jahan 

      5 years ago from California


      It seems like America has far less protections than European countries have at the moment. Hopefully that will change.

    • Thelma Alberts profile image

      Thelma Alberts 

      5 years ago from Germany and Philippines

      There were some "honor killings" and forced marriages happened in Germany. As an outsider, it´s very horrible to know that it still happens in the 21st century. I did not know that forced marriage is existing in America. Thanks for sharing the informations. Happy weekend!


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