November 14, 2009
DIANA NETHERCOTT FOR THE TORONTO STAR
When no one was around, Jassi Kaur quietly slipped into her niece’s room, where the 19-year-old woman sat huddled in a corner sobbing.
Angry relatives had confronted her for one reason: she had a boyfriend.
“It was awful,” Kaur recalls. She cradled the girl, told her everything would be fine.
Weeks later, in January, the entire clan – which resides in a sprawling house in Brampton – flew to Punjab, India’s northern province. Within days, the Grade 12 student was married to a man she had never met before.
Sandeep Chand, 34, a manager of client care for a bank in Victoria, B.C., has been forcibly married twice (see accompanying story).
“I hear stories like that almost every day,” says Deepa Mattoo, a community legal worker at the South Asian Legal Clinic in Toronto. “The surprising thing is that many parents believe there’s nothing wrong with it … they think they are doing what is the best for their child.”
Forced marriages have garnered little attention in this country. But the plight of Canadian teen Hardeep Flora, who two weeks ago fought her way back to Canada after contacting consulate officials in India, has suddenly cast a spotlight on a deeply hidden form of abuse.
In Flora’s case, the 19-year-old had been whisked away by family to Punjab where her money and travel documents were taken away. She was told she couldn’t leave until she was married. A phone call to the Canadian consulate led to a dramatic rescue.
Every year, dozens of young Canadian girls, and occasionally boys, are forced into marriages, social workers say. Mattoo, who has been working with the South Asian legal clinic for three years, sees at least two dozen cases annually.
A majority involve families of South Asian origin, but girls have also been taken back to the Middle East or African nations like Sudan and Egypt, and coerced into marriage.
“It’s a cross-cultural and cross-racial issue,” says Zahra Dhanani, legal director for the Metropolitan Action Committee on Violence Against Women and Children. “It’s all about power, control and dominance … It might happen more among South Asians, but I have had clients from Nigeria, South Africa, Europe and even WASP-y Canadians.”
Dhanani cites the marriages of underage members of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Bountiful, B.C., as an example of forced marriage among Caucasians.
The most common motive is preservation of culture. “Parents think if they marry their daughter off to someone who was born and raised in, say, Pakistan, it will help preserve the culture,” says Mattoo. “What they don’t understand is that they are wreaking havoc on their kids’ lives.”
Some parents see it as carrying on a long-standing tradition of arranged marriage – whether the kids agree to it or not. Mattoo tells people an arranged marriage is one where you have a choice; in a forced marriage you have no choice.
Forced marriage can also be a matter of family honour. “It’s acceptable if the son is dating someone, but God save you if you, a girl, have a boyfriend,” says Amandeep Kaur, manager of Punjabi Community Health Services.
“It’s totally unacceptable.”
HARVINDER SIDHU, a long-haul truck driver from Brampton, says he and his 21-year-old girlfriend were engaged to be married two years ago. The wedding date was set, cards designed and a banquet hall booked for the occasion.
“My girlfriend and I were really excited,” says Sidhu, 25. “We had even checked out some apartments in Mississauga.”
Then his girlfriend and her parents went on an unexpected trip to India. When they returned a month later, Sidhu’s girlfriend was married. “I just spoke to her once after that,” he says. “She says she was coerced into getting married. Her father was unwell and put pressure on her to marry someone in the same caste.”
A common modus operandi is for the family to take the girl to their native country under some pretext. Once there, she is pressured into marrying a man the family has chosen. Some see their husbands for the first time on their engagement or wedding day.
Earlier this year, schoolteachers in England were urged to be aware of signs of possible forced marriages, since schools and colleges are often the only places where a potential victim can speak freely.
In 2005, England set up a Forced Marriage Unit, run jointly by the Home Office and Foreign Office. It received 1,600 reports of forced marriages last year, and intervened in 420 cases. A specialized British team has launched secret rescue missions to bring home victims held captive by their families abroad.
The unit also runs shelters in New Delhi, India; Lahore, Pakistan; and Dhaka, Bangladesh, among other cities in the world.
“We have a lot of work to do yet before clamouring for a similar unit,” says Ritu Chokshi, coordinator of the South Asian Legal Clinic’s forced marriages project, which started in 2005.
Its advisory board includes members of the federal departments of justice, foreign affairs and international trade. “If we put emphasis on prevention, there’s a lot we can achieve.”
The federal justice department has researched cases involving forced marriage in Western Canada. A similar study has been done in Montreal and Toronto but results have not been released, says spokesperson Carole Saindon.
Chokshi and Mattoo organize workshops to help parents and children understand the concepts of honour and marriage. Depending on circumstances, Mattoo advises young girls to fight if they are being forced into marriage. “But if I think the woman is in mortal danger, I advise her to lay low, get married and get back to Canada quickly.”
Once here, she tells them not to file sponsorship papers for the husband. If the papers have already been filed, her advice is to withdraw them. Meantime, she tries to get the marriage annulled or start divorce proceedings.
But in the past year Mattoo has noticed a disturbing trend. “I’ve seen that many girls forced into marriages are brought back when they are pregnant,” ensuring they don’t leave their new husbands once back in Canada.
Firdaus Ali, of the Alliance for South Asian AIDS Prevention in Toronto, says forced marriage isn’t just a heterosexual issue. Gays and lesbians are also forced into matrimony because parents believe it will “cure them of the disease.”
The results are tragic. “It leads to turmoil, mental health issues and even depression.” The worst, says Ali, is not being able to tell anyone “because of the shame factor.”
Because the situation involves family members, rarely do victims of a forced marriage press charges, says Manjit Mangat, a Brampton lawyer.
He recalls a particularly angry Brampton man who once turned to him for help. His 19-year-old girlfriend had been travelling in Pakistan when her parents suddenly announced she was getting married. The girl escaped and returned to Toronto, but would not press charges.
“I don’t understand that but I guess that’s our culture,” says Mangat. “That is among other things that has to change. You just cannot accept what happens to you.”
Jassi Kaur’s niece, now 20, is back in Canada. She has filed sponsorship papers for her new husband, still in India but waiting to join her. Kaur says there is little she can do for that niece. But now she worries for the young woman’s sister.
She doesn’t think she can stand by and watch another forced marriage in the family.
“I can’t see it happening a second time,” she said.