As parliament prepares to debate forced marriages, calls are mounting for more to be done to stop the practice, prevalent among some parts of the migrant community.
According to Lathan Suntharalingam, a local politician campaigning against such marriages, it is an integration problem which can’t be solved through “multicultural do-gooding”.
Forced marriages are those taking place under community or parental pressure, normally among immigrants. In some cases, violence and emotional blackmail is employed both before and after the wedding.
There is evidence that such unions are taking place in Switzerland. The only study on the issue so far, by the Surgir foundation in Lausanne in 2006, estimates that there are around 17,000 forced marriages in the country.
A third of those involved are under 18 years old, and the practice also affects men as well as women, Surgir found.
Suntharalingam, of Sri Lankan origin and member of the Lucerne cantonal parliament, is the co-founder of an association fighting forced marriages.
He said that the issue affected patriarchal and traditional migrant communities and was not linked to a particular country of origin or religion.
Among those most affected, he said, were Hindu Tamils, Aramaeans, Catholic and Muslim Kosovars, orthodox Jews, Sunni Turks and Kurds.
Lack of integration
“Forcing someone into a marriage with a person of the same origin is often a result of a lack of integration,” Suntharalingam explained.
“Many Tamils, for example, have modest jobs and hardly speak the national languages, so they are cut off from the western way of life, which they regard with scepticism and fear.”
He added that many parents thought they were helping their children, as nuptials with people outside the ethnic group are seen as a divorce risk.
Families also want to avoid “the disapproval of members of the community, who exercise a strong social control,” according to Suntharalingam.
He said one of the main problems in tackling the issue was “the do-gooding attitudes of some political circles which pretend not to know about the seriousness of the problem, making it into a simple cultural difference”.
This means that many of those working on immigration issues simply close their eyes to the problem for fear of being accused of discrimination, he continued.
“We young Swiss of foreign origin do not want to ignore the problem but recognise it and work seriously against it. This is the way towards emancipation, not the other way around,” he said.
Suntharalingam believes that forced marriages should be considered a public offence.
This view is shared by some politicians. The senator Trix Heberlein has put forward a motion, due to be discussed on March 12 in the House of Representatives, which calls on the government to adopt legislative measures and a strategy for dealing with forced marriages, including protection for victims.
The government has rejected the motion, saying this could heighten public awareness of the problem but was unlikely to affect the perpetrators and victims.
However, the government said that preventative measures could be considered by the federal authorities and the cantons. This could include an information campaign targeting immigrant communities and those working with them, as well as assistance offered to potential and actual victims.
Suntharalingam welcomes these moves but adds that well-integrated migrants should be included. For him it is paradoxical that such questions are debated by those who often have little experience of the issue.
“It would be like setting up an equal opportunities office for men and women which is only managed by men,” he said.
There is no legal definition of forced or arranged marriages in Switzerland. But a forced union is considered to be one that is concluded without the consent of one or both of the spouses.
An arranged marriage is performed with the full and free consent of both parties and is normally arranged by a third party.
Forced marriages are not punishable under Swiss law, but they can be considered a case of coercion and can therefore be pursued by the authorities. Also covered are offences linked to forced marriages, such as threats, kidnapping and violence (physical, sexual or psychological).