How can I support a client who has left a forced marriage?

How can I support a client who has left a forced marriage?

Forced marriage is a practice in which a marriage takes place without the free consent of either or both of the people getting married.

Arranged marriage can appear similar to forced marriage, inasmuch as family members are involved in selecting people for their son or daughter to consider as a possible spouse. However, the two people must consent to the marriage.

Forced marriage is a form of violence. While it can happen to anyone, girls and young women are the most common victims. The violence can be emotional and/or physical. There is no consent, but rather a so-called agreement is obtained through coercion and duress. In addition to physical violence, the person may be subjected to threats, confinement, abduction, religious or cultural pressure, financial control or isolation.

Forced marriage is an issue in Canada, although it is only recently beginning to be recognized and understood. Sometimes, the forced marriage has taken place outside Canada before the family comes here. Other times, the person is removed from Canada to another county to be married to someone without her consent. Or, a woman may be brought/sent to Canada for the purposes of a forced marriage. And, forced marriages also take place in Canada.

Once in a forced marriage, women are more likely to be abused by their husband. This abuse will look like the abuse that any woman can experience in her intimate relationship. It may be physical, sexual, financial or psychological. In addition, the woman may feel stigmatized by the fact that she did not consent to her marriage and may fear becoming isolated from her community if she speaks out about it.

You may encounter women leaving forced marriages in your work as a service provider. These women will need all the same supports you offer all your clients. Like all your clients, a woman leaving a forced marriage may be reluctant to talk about that fact. But she will need additional knowledge, understanding and support from you.

Best practices include:

  • Having information about forced marriage and community services available and visible in your office
  • Bringing a non-judgemental, informed attitude to your work with the woman
  • Meeting with the client on her own, even if she brings a support person
  • Discussing legal options with her
  • Creating a safety plan for wherever she is in her journey

You may want to use the Client Intake Form developed by the South Asian Legal Clinic’s (SALCO) forced marriage project when talking with a woman who is dealing with a forced marriage. You can find this in SALCO’s Forced Marriage Toolkit.

You can also find a client safety plan for women dealing with forced marriage in the toolkit.

There are a number of legal issues related to forced marriage in Canada.

Family Law

A marriage is only legally valid if both parties provided free and informed consent at the time of the marriage. That “consent” cannot be obtained under duress, coercion or threat. In other words, it may be possible to have the marriage declared void if it was forced.

In Ontario, people under 16 cannot marry. People between 16 and 18 must have parental consent to marry.

Unlike many other provinces, Ontario does not have specific legislation to address family violence.

Immigration law

Newcomers to Canada who have been forced into a marriage may be able to apply for an exception to the conditional permanent resident status because it is considered a form of domestic violence. The woman will have to show proof that the marriage took place without her consent.

Criminal law

Section 293.1 of the Criminal Code makes it a criminal offence to celebrate, aid or participate in a marriage rite or ceremony if either party to the marriage has not consented.

In addition, many of the actions taken to try to force someone into a marriage are covered by the Criminal Code. For example:

  • Uttering threats (s 264.1)
  • Assault (ss 265 – 268)
  • Sexual assault (ss 271 – 273)
  • Kidnapping (s 279)
  • Forcible confinement (s 279 (2))
  • Abduction of a young person (ss. 280 – 283)
  • Removal of child from Canada with intent to commit act outside Canada that would be one of listed offences if committed in Canada (s. 273.3)

Further resources

SALCO has led much of the work on forced marriage in Ontario. You can find information and resources in the Forced Marriage section of their website.

The SALCO page includes information on the Network of Agencies Against Forced Marriage (NAAFM) — community partners who are equipped to further address the issues surrounding a threat of or a forced marriage.

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