New School Year Puts French on Forced Marriage Alert

Sophie Hardach, Reuters, September 2, 2009

As thousands of girls and young women prepare to start the new school year in France, activists are sounding the alarm over those who are missing–teenagers sent abroad over the holidays and forced into marriage.

Most victims are of Asian, African or Middle Eastern descent and belong to France’s Muslim community, the largest in Europe.

While countries such as Britain have set up special units that track down victims at home and overseas, activists say France is only now waking up to the problem.

{snip} Over the past year, France has begun to tackle the problem more aggressively. Last November, Paris City Hall published a guide advising officials on detecting forced marriages.

But former victims and activists, many of them second- or third-generation immigrants working in France’s multicultural suburbs, said such moves were unlikely to help women married off abroad, or scared into silence.

Zeliha Alkis, who works for Elele, a non-profit organization that mainly helps women of Turkish origin, cites the example of a young woman of Turkish descent who was married to a Turkish man at a Paris town hall this summer. On her wedding night, she was locked in a room, and when she screamed and protested, her grandmother tied her up so the marriage could be consummated.

WEDDING SEASON

In many other cases, the women are married in the family’s country of origin. Reasons include the family wanting to ensure the woman marries a candidate deemed suitable, settling a debt and procuring a visa for the groom. Unlike arranged marriage, which can be consensual, these weddings are performed against the women’s will.

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No one knows exactly how many French women are forced into such unions. A report on women’s rights by France’s high council for integration in 2003 put the number of girls and women at risk of being forced into marriage at 70,000, based on research by grassroots organizations.

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France has at times steered an awkward course between trying to respect its ethnic minorities and defending women’s rights; last year, a French court annulled the marriage of a Muslim woman on the grounds that she lied about being a virgin.

Similarly, some see forced marriage as a religious issue, even though Islam bans it and imams helping the women have been threatened.

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