When Humayra Abedin left the U.K. on Aug. 2 with a round-trip ticket to Bangladesh after hearing that her mother was sick, she had no idea the "illness" was a ruse to lure her home to marry a suitor of her parents' choice. But on Dec. 17, Abedin, a 32-year-old doctor who has lived in Britain for the past six years, confirmed in a statement that she had been held captive for four months in her native country and coerced into a marriage by her mother and father. "I was forced to marry a person of my parents' choice," it read. "I entered the marriage ceremony under duress. I did not consent to the marriage."
Earlier in December, after being alerted to her situation, the British High Court had issued an injunction to Abedin's family in Bangladesh to allow her to return to the U.K. under Britain's Forced Marriage Act of 2007. It was the first time the law which went into effect on Nov. 25 of this year and gives courts the power to protect forced-marriage victims and dole out sentences to their perpetrators was invoked on behalf of someone who is not a British national. While the court order had no legal bearing in Bangladesh, a sympathetic judge, Justice Syed Mohmed Hossain, mentioned the injunction at the hearing in Dhaka in which Abedin sought to have her marriage voided. After ruling that she was free to go, Hossain noted, "Children are not the slaves of their parents. They must have their own freedoms." He ordered Abedin's parents to return her passport, driver's license and credit card.
Although the landmark repatriation was immediately trumpeted as a victory for Britain's new law, human-rights activists and even the British government have been quick to point out that her case is just one in a grossly underreported global problem. According to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, a marriage is considered forced if there is any duress, whether physical or mental, to marry. Most countries do not have a specific ban on forced marriages and instead prosecute the practice under laws forbidding kidnapping or sexual, physical or mental abuse. "Forced marriage affects men and women from all over the world and across many cultural groups," says Dr. Mohammad Talib, professor of contemporary South Asian studies at Oxford. "Historically, forced marriages also occurred among members of the British aristocracy."
Nobody knows exactly how many people are forced into marriages because, as scholars like Talib note, most affected women are afraid to seek help and ostracize themselves from their communities. But the U.K.'s Forced Marriage Unit, administered through the Foreign & Commonwealth Office (FCO), handled more than 1,300 cases during the first three quarters of 2008 alone, an increase of 79% over 2007. With some victims as young as 13, most cases involved women, though experts estimate that 15% of cases worldwide may involve men marrying as a result of family pressure. "We're definitely getting more calls than normal," says FCO spokesman Nick Branch. Branch says most of the unit's cases this year involved families from India, Pakistan and Bangladesh.
Not everyone, however, agrees on what the right course of action is to curb a problem that grows more complicated as families become increasingly international. Some human-rights groups say the Forced Marriage Act may inadvertently discourage women from seeking help. Sumanta Roy, acting director of Imkaan, a nonprofit organization in the U.K. run by Asian refugees that advocates for women and children facing domestic violence, does not think most women who are in forced marriages would seek legal remedy unless they were sure they had access to housing, job training and other social services first. "We're concerned that this law may deter some women from coming forward, since you're asking them to completely isolate themselves from their family and community in a very public way," says Roy. She has been pushing instead for a national education campaign against forced marriages for both immigrant children and their parents. "Parents are juggling their identity and trying to retain some of their history, so we need to educate people," she says.
Abedin's public reaction to her verdict confirms what human-rights groups say is another challenge of controlling forced marriage through legal mechanisms: the victims rarely want to use the law to punish their parents. "I'm relieved that I'm free. I'm happy," Abedin told reporters on Dec. 14 after being released in Dhaka. "But I don't have any bad feelings towards my parents." Speaking outside court, Abedin insisted that she does not want her parents to be prosecuted, as she still loves them.
Deputy Director Amtal Rana of Kiran-Asian Women's Aid, a nonprofit that received more than 100 calls last year regarding forced marriages, says Abedin's is not an uncommon reaction. "Children often don't want to have action taken against their parents but just want to get out of the situation," says Rana. Reports suggest that Abedin's strict Muslim parents disapproved of her Hindu boyfriend in Britain and wanted her to marry a man of their choosing. "Parents are doing the same thing that happened to them and their parents and their grandparents, so they don't think they are doing anything wrong," says Rana.
How, then, do harmful traditions like forced marriage fall? Legislation is most effective when coupled with an education campaign that addresses the everyday obstacles immigrants encounter in their adopted homelands, says Oxford's Talib. "A person's emotional, social and economic dependence sometimes accounts for them becoming an easy prey to forced marriages." Immigrants struggling to retain their cultural identity in their adopted homelands need reassurance that rejecting these norms will not leave them destitute community outcasts. Otherwise, says Talib, cases like Abedin's are sure to be the exception and not the rule: "Without mustering personal strength of initiative and independence, it is difficult to imagine anyone turning to the Forced Marriage Act for redress."