Welcome to part two of our Inspirational Interview with Vidya Sri of Ganga Shakti. In this part, Vidya talks about the differences from “honour” based killing, cultural reasons for forced marriage and provides suggestions to help women and men who want out. If you have not read part 1 of this interview, you can find it here.

6. What is the relationship between forced marriage and ‘honour’ based killing?

The terms “honour crime” or “honour-based violence” embraces a variety of crimes of violence (mainly but not exclusively against women) including assault, imprisonment and murder, where the person is being punished by their family or their community. They are being punished for actually, or allegedly, undermining what the family or community believes to be the correct code of behaviour. In transgressing this correct code of behaviour, the person shows that they have not been properly controlled to conform by their family and this is to the “shame” or “dishonour” of the family. Honor killings are sometimes committed when an individual does not agree to a forced marriage or tries to flee from one or does not consummate one.

7. It is often the case that girls and women are forced into marriage by their own parents. What are the reasons for families forcing their daughters into marriage?

Forced marriage can happen at any age to minors and adults including individuals with physical or mental disabilities. Such a marriage can be used to execute a financial transaction, control perceived “inappropriate” and/or sexual behaviour, or restrict an individual’s right to self-determine his/her choices including choosing a life partner. It is often used to ensure that an individual is adhering to a pre-determined code of conduct. Forced marriage is also used to control the chastity of an individual and uphold so called family “honour.” Families that engage in the practice of forced marriage believe that they love their children and are forcing the marriage in the best interest of their child.

8. If a relative, school teacher, friend or anyone suspects a girl or woman is about to be forced into marriage, what can they do to help them?

It is very important to understand what the girl or woman wants for herself. Often, she may want to engage in the forced marriage and go through with it. Sometimes she may be confused about the consequences of not going through with a forced marriage. Some ways to provide help and support is to: provide reassurance that she is not going against her religion (no major religion advocates forced marriage), ensure her of confidentiality, and offer her support services. If she does not want to go through with forced marriage and asks for help, states that her life may be in danger or states that she requires assistance to protect herself from her family; then it is critical to assist her with effective safety planning. In all cases, a risk assessment must be done. Always speak to the victim alone; never attempt to mediate with family members or friends. Family members may appear compliant during the discussion but will typically increase the level of violence, coercion or fraud related to the forced marriage when they return the victim home. Offer a non-biased approach while conducting the discussion. Do not send the victim away or back to the perpetrators against her/his wishes as you may be the only person to whom he/she has outreached. If they found the courage to speak out, you are likely their last resort.

9. Your organisation does a lot of outreach work with schools and communities. Please tell us about some of your projects.

We work closely with guidance counselors and law enforcement to provide technical assistance and support. We engage a wide range of service providers, students, and scholars on this issue because of the very complex nature of forced marriage. There are many aspects to be considered and many stakeholders are required to drive change on this issue. We work with various student groups to deliver workshops and talks and collect data. We work with schools of social work to deliver lectures to students preparing to work as social workers. We train social workers in the field and do workshops on site at a variety of organisations. We work with women’s centres across the country to deliver workshops. We also work closely with the media to deepen public understanding of forced marriage.

We are also partnered with The Urban Institute in Washington, DC on a paper we are co-authoring on forced marriage in the United States. I am the only American survivor of Forced Marriage to author a definition for the Encyclopedia on Sexual Violence and Abuse. (1)

10. Finally, in your considered opinion, how can we end violence against women in our societies today?

I look at my own children and I see how different their educational experience is from mine. I went to NYC public schools my entire life but did not have any type of sex education, education about the consequences of consuming drugs or alcohol, teen dating violence or bullying. Today, these are all topics covered by many schools and children learn about the consequences of engaging in such behavior very early in their lives. Middle school can be one environment to incorporate education about the role of consent in marriage. This can easily become part of existing health education curriculums in the United States.

There is also the need to better educate new immigrants and refugee communities in the United States. They may bring cultural practices, like forced marriage, with them that are not in compliance with US laws or are simply not effective. Using violence, coercion, or fraud to cause a marriage with an absence of consent from one or both parties is a violation of US law. Even though we do not have current, specific legislation addressing forced marriage, there are laws addressing the harmful behaviors engaged in before and after a forced marriage including but not limited to physical violence, coercion, false imprisonment, abduction, rape, trafficking, immigration and financial fraud, deception, and many other issues.

New immigrants and refugees must be educated on the harmful practice of forced marriage to help them effectively integrate into American society. A short training module can be inserted into existing integration curriculums to help empower these communities.

(1) Sri, V. (in press). Forced Marriage. In J.L. Postmus (Ed.), Sexual Violence and Abuse: An Encyclopedia of Prevention, Impacts, and Recovery. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO.