Against their will: Inside Canada’s forced marriages


Forced marriage is one of the last taboos to break. A new law could make it a crime. So why do those who champion prevention oppose it?

Rachel Browne

January 5, 2015


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Lee Marsh, a former Jehovah’s Witness who was married off by her parents at a young age, at her Ottawa apartment. (Photograph by Blair Gable)

Two weeks after her 18th birthday, Lee Marsh was sitting at the kitchen table one Sunday, reading the Bible, when her mother came in and announced that Marsh would marry a 20-year-old member of their Jehovah’s Witness congregation in Montreal. The girl was stunned; she had met her husband-to-be just once. Five weeks later, it was done.

For a few months before, her mother had been shopping her around while sizing up men in the congregation—some more than 20 years older—looking for a suitable husband. She made Marsh wear a tight, low-cut white dress bought for the outings. “I hated wearing it. I’ve always preferred to be covered up,” Marsh says. “But my mother really wanted me to be attractive to these men.” Marsh’s mother had rejected all the suitors up to that day in 1970 when she announced the match. “I knew I wasn’t allowed to have an opinion. This wasn’t a woman that you said no to.”

Marsh thought about the leather strap hanging by the front door, the one her mother used when the children—Marsh was the eldest of four—dared to defy her. They never knew what would set her off; two weeks before, Marsh had got it for not cleaning the house properly. So Marsh buried the feelings of anger and betrayal she felt toward the woman who had abandoned her twice already in her short life: After her parents divorced when she was nine, she was left behind in Toronto with a father she says sexually abused her; later, in Montreal, when she had returned to her mom, she says her mother’s Jehovah’s Witness boyfriend also sexually assaulted her, and she was sent into foster care.

In their congregation, the pressure to get married early was intense. Breaking off the engagement was not an option. “Once the announcement was made in church that we were getting married, I was trapped,” she says. “I couldn’t back out of it.” Marsh would do anything to stay in her mother’s good graces; she couldn’t bear the thought of losing her again.

During the ceremony, Marsh was terrified. “I wanted to run, but I didn’t dare.” She had told her husband about her history of sexual abuse, but he told her not to worry, that they would get through it together.

Two weeks into the marriage, Marsh realized just how much she resented it. Her husband started demanding sex constantly and she felt it was her duty to submit. “The Witnesses believe that when you’re married, you are obligated to deliver sex whenever your husband wants it,” she explains. “It brought back everything I had gone through as a child and I became extremely depressed and suicidal.”

But she stayed, had two children and, for 15 years, endured what she describes as incessant verbal and sexual abuse from a man who eventually became a church elder. That meant he passed judgment on others in the congregation, deciding whether or not they had sinned and how they would be punished. In 1984, Marsh decided to leave. In addition to a legal, secular divorce, she needed a “spiritual” divorce, otherwise, the church would still consider her his wife. In a letter to church elders, she writes that she tried to be a “good, submissive wife,” and “almost always pushed aside my personal feelings so that he would be happy.” She details the emotional and sexual abuse, but does not cite forced marriage; only recently did she even hear the term. “It wasn’t really applicable at the time. I wanted out of the marriage, not because I was pushed into it, but because of the abuse that was triggering all of my past abuse,” she says.

It may seem strange, even impossible, that someone could be forced to marry against her will. But, likesexual assault—and, more recently, human trafficking—the curtain is being pulled back on what has been happening in Canada, and around the world, for centuries. In some nations, such as Norway, Belgium, Pakistan and the United Kingdom, forced marriage is a crime. Next year, Canada is expected to join that list when Bill S-7, which adds forced marriage to the Criminal Code, is approved.

In September 2013, Toronto’s South Asian Legal Clinic of Ontario released a report that counted 219 confirmed or suspected cases of forced marriage in Ontario and Quebec from 2010 to 2012, information obtained through interviews and a survey filled out by service providers from shelters, legal clinics, immigration agencies and youth groups. The people, the vast majority of whom are women, came from a wide range of religious groups: 103 were Muslim, 12 Christian, 44 Hindu, 24 were unsure of their religious affiliation, and five had none. Almost half were Canadian citizens and, in most cases, family members were the perpetrators. People were taken out of Canada to get married in 57 per cent of cases. Yet the report points out that the Department of Foreign Affairs “confirmed they had provided assistance” to just 34 individuals from 2009 to 2012.

Forced marriage always involves pressure to wed against a person’s will, under physical or emotional duress, or without free and informed consent, according to definitions from international law and human rights groups. The main reason people submit to a marriage is because they do not want to disobey or disappoint family or church.

Very little data exist on forced marriage in Canada, but numerous court cases and anecdotal evidence suggest it’s been happening for more than a century, from coast to coast. Only in the last decade have researchers and advocacy groups started to grasp its prevalence and scope.

Shortly after Marsh sent that letter to her church, the elders “dis-fellowshipped” her and announced it to the congregation; Marsh packed her bags and moved out. She says her husband bribed her children to stay with him, but, in 1986, she obtained custody of her two daughters, then 14 and 10, and went on to study at Montreal’s Dawson College and Concordia University to become a counsellor for abused women and children. Now 62, Marsh frequently hears from ex-Jehovah’s Witnesses who say they, too, were forced to marry. “I used to think I was the only one, but I’m hearing more and more women saying they were forced into marriage. I’m flabbergasted, because I thought I was alone.”

Jehovah’s Witnesses in Canada would not directly answer questions regarding Marsh’s claims, but a spokesperson said in an email that “forced marriage, and spouses being required to submit to marital acts against their will, is repugnant and contrary to what Jehovah’s Witnesses believe, practise and teach.” They pointed to their website for information on dis-fellowshipping, which states: “If a baptized Witness makes a practice of breaking the Bible’s moral code and does not repent, he or she will be shunned or dis-fellowshipped,” and also explains that dis-fellowshipped people who demonstrate a desire to change their ways are “welcome to become members of the congregation again.”

Since 2011, Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird has sought to make Canada a world leader in combatting forced marriage around the world, which he has said can be eradicated “within a generation.” Last October, he introduced the first-ever UN resolution dedicated to ending it, and has pledged approximately $35 million to projects combatting child and forced marriage in developing countries such as Ghana, Bangladesh, Zambia and Burkina Faso. Yet York University Ph.D. student Karlee Sapoznik, who researched forced marriage in Canada for her doctoral thesis, says the Canadian government has historically ignored—and even denied—that people get married against their will within our borders. “There’s almost this mythology that it doesn’t happen in Canada.”

On Nov. 5, when Citizenship and Immigration Minister Chris Alexander announced S-7, the “Zero Tolerance for Barbaric Cultural Practices Act,” he introduced a three-pronged piece of legislation to address the problem at home and abroad. Alexander cited the 2012 Shafia honour killings, in which an immigrant from Afghanistan, his second wife and his only son conspired to drown the family’s three teenage daughters, because their “Westernized behaviour” had shamed the family. Bill S-7 would ban people in polygamous and forced marriages from immigrating to Canada. The second piece will amend the Civil Marriage Act to make 16 the minimum age of marriage across the country.

It would also enshrine forced marriage in the Criminal Code. “Everyone who celebrates, aids or participates in a marriage rite or ceremony knowing that one of the persons being married is marrying against their will” would be guilty of a crime punishable by up to five years in prison. It is moving at a fast clip through Parliament; it received its third reading on Dec. 12.

At York University, Sapoznik interviewed victims of forced marriages—including a Mennonite woman from Winnipeg, who says that in 1988, she was forced to get married at age 18 after her family and community found out she was pregnant—and examined legal cases dating back to the 19th century. More recently, 200 members of Lev Tahor, the ultra-Orthodox Hasidic Jewish group that originated in Jerusalem in the 1980s, moved to Quebec, where they lived for 10 years. Many fled to a small community in southwestern Ontario in 2013 after they heard that Children’s Aid was about to remove their children based on allegations that they were being confined to basements and forced to marry older men, among other abuses. An ex-member of the group testified that the goal of the community was to marry children by age 13. They fled again in March to Guatemala, although several children have since been returned to the Toronto area, where they are in foster care.

In Toronto, the South Asian Legal Clinic of Ontario (SALCO) investigated its first case of forced marriage in 2005, after a counsellor at a Toronto high school called to report that a family of girls had gone abroad for a vacation, but one of them did not return to Canada. Deepa Mattoo, the acting executive director of the clinic, says the group tracked the girl down, found out she was about to be forced to marry, and arranged to bring her home.

In many of SALCO’s cases, women who come to them for advice don’t even know that what is happening to them is wrong. “People going through it know they aren’t being given a choice, but they don’t necessarily call it forced marriage,” said Mattoo. “They may say something like their father is making them get married, but they won’t say that their human rights are being violated.” Toronto’s Barbra Schlifer Clinic started asupport program for forced-marriage victims in 2009, and the caseload has been increasing ever since. “I’ve had Irish clients who have experienced forced marriage; Roma clients, Saudi, South Asian, European and Christian clients. It’s pretty much across the board,” says Farrah Khan, who has been counselling victims since 2006. “We see different economic backgrounds, as well. We see it happening in communities that are isolated, in communities that have a fear about losing their connections to culture, to faith.” Rape must also be brought into discussions about forced marriage, because couples are expected to consummate the marriage.

For families with LGBT children, forced marriage is a way to control their sexuality and protect the family from the shame of having a gay or transgender child. Yegi Dadui, transgender program coordinator at the Sherbourne Health Clinic in Toronto, deals with about four cases a year involving both Canadian citizens and newcomers. “There’s so much stigma around being trans already. Not being able to express yourself and be yourself is difficult, and that’s what’s going on in forced-marriage situations, as well.” Because these cases are even more taboo, it’s difficult to find people who will discuss their experiences openly. Although Antua Petrimoulx is not one of Dadui’s clients, her story has parallels with other cases in Canada.

Born Manuel Aguilar in Reynosa, Mexico, in 1965, Petrimoulx was 20 when her mother, a devout Catholic, forced her to marry a woman, even though Petrimoulx knew, deep down, she was female with no desire for other women. Her mother and brothers taunted and punished her for behaving like a girl and having relationships with other boys. In her late teens, they forced her to have sex with a female prostitute in a hotel room and, shortly after that, her mother told her she would be marrying a woman in order to fit in with the community and become a real man. The couple had sex once, on their wedding night. After a couple of months, Petrimoulx moved back home, where the abuse escalated. Her mother forced her to take anti-psychotic medications, and often locked her in her bedroom. When she did make it out of the house dressed as a woman, the police frequently targeted her. She says she was once raped and burned with cigarettes by police officers in the back of their squad car. In 2005, she fled to Canada, where she filed an application for refugee status as a victim of forced marriage and police brutality. Her claim was accepted and she now lives in Windsor, Ont. Although she is safe, Petrimoulx suffers from depression, and has tried, and failed, to write the hairdresser’s exam five times; the stress and anxiety were too much and she could not concentrate. She cannot work and her mental health is precarious.

Mattoo says SALCO’s clients are often hesitant to seek help from the police or the courts, because they don’t want to incriminate—or testify against—family. Without them, they would be alone in the world, a fate sometimes more frightening than the abuse itself. It’s also difficult to prove emotional duress and subtler types of pressure. In cases of physical and sexual abuse, SALCO has helped clients pursue criminal charges against spouses they were forced to marry, the same way they would even if the marriages weren’t forced. For Mattoo, Canada already has robust laws that deal with abuse, and she feels victims are more in need of a place to live, counselling to deal with the psychological trauma, and help getting back on their feet after they leave their marriages and, sometimes, their family members.

That’s why SALCO and 13 other activist groups and social service agencies, including the Schlifer clinic and the Woman Abuse Council of Toronto, are opposed to Bill S-7. “The proposed legislation exposes the underlying racist agenda that this government harbours,” their statement reads, referring to the name of the bill and the fact that they feel it singles out non-Western communities where polygamy is accepted. Mattoo’s main criticism is that the new law allows the federal government to wash its hands of the problem. “I’m not saying that any criminal action should go unreported, but criminalizing will not help prevent it.”

On June 16, the United Kingdom made forced marriage a criminal offence. Its forced-marriage unit, created in 2005 by the British government in response to a growing number of cases, says it “gave advice or support related to a possible forced marriage” in 1,302 cases between January and December 2013, the most recent statistics. Anyone who uses “violence, threats or any other form of coercion” to force someone to marry faces up to seven years in prison. The case of a blond-haired, blue-eyed Christian girl from Ontario is one of the first being investigated under the new law.

Elizabeth, who does not want to use her real name for fear of alerting her British ex-fiancé, whom she believes would jeopardize the criminal investigation, was raised in Hamilton by parents who belonged to the Church of God. It’s a distant offshoot of the Christian Open Brethren movement, which originated in 19th-century England and Ireland. The precise number of members is unknown, but scholars estimate there are 100 or so congregations around the world.

Elizabeth says church elders were very involved in her family’s day-to-day decisions, and friendships outside the community were discouraged. When she was in Grade 3, she recalls being pulled out of class by a social worker and taken to a room, where she was asked if she was fearful of being married off to older men. “Thankfully, that wasn’t happening, but all community members are required to marry within the group. The penalty for not doing so is punishment or expulsion,” she says. “The attitudes of the leaders toward their marriage practices are: If you don’t like it, just leave.”

At age 14, Elizabeth started receiving letters and gifts from men in her church and partner churches abroad who were interested in courting her. “They were also coming to visit all the time, making a point of being with my family, trying to get their foot in the door.” She wasn’t interested, and tried her best to ignore the advances, even graduating from high school. She was trying to figure out what she wanted to study at McMaster University when a church elder in his 30s came to town in search of a bride. One of his relatives began sending her tapes of sermons, in which he described how parishioners must only marry other church members or face excommunication. The church told the 25-year-old she would be cut off from her family if she didn’t marry the English church leader. “I was feeling pressure from the community, like a cloud hanging over me,” she said. “It’s a very difficult place to be in, because you’re being told the judgment of God is on you if you don’t conform.”

In a written response to questions about Elizabeth’s case, a spokesperson for the Church of God in Toronto says it’s not aware of any forced marriages in its congregations, and that members who may have come to Canada to find a spouse “probably came more in hope than expectation!”

In 2007, Elizabeth’s future husband brought her to England to prepare for the wedding. She thought she would live with someone else until they were married, but, when she arrived, he told her she had to live with him right away for immigration purposes. She was only allowed to leave the house to run errands or go to church. “I was being kept at home and told how to dress and the things I could or could not wear as the wife of an elder.”

She says he began raping her on a regular basis, once forcing himself on her in his car. It continued even when she was ill. “Rather than helping me through this sickness and getting me medical attention,” she said, “he’s demanding things sexually from me, premaritally, which is unusual in the Brethren.” In its letter, the Church of God Toronto states that “any church member engaging in premarital sex would be excommunicated from the Church for committing a serious sin.”

In 2008, Elizabeth’s fiancé brought her back to Canada, where she thought she would be retrieving the rest of her belongings. Instead, she says he took her to a room at the Holiday Inn by Toronto’s Pearson airport and sexually assaulted her for the last time. He flew back to England alone and she hasn’t seen him since.

Elizabeth says her parents and church elders ignored her complaints about the abuse and her plea to investigate and remove her ex-fiancé from his leadership role. Women in the church told her it was her fault the engagement fell through and that she should marry someone else. After writing church leaders about her grievances, she was officially excommunicated in a letter dated Sept. 26, 2011, for the “sin of unforgiveness,” specifically, for being unable to forgive her ex-fiancé and the church, but the letter does not go into further detail. “We do not intend to reopen discussion about those things. We have done all that we possibly can do as an oversight in Toronto. Local U.K. oversight has agreed, our District oversight has agreed, and those things must now be left with the Lord,” the letter to Elizabeth reads.

The Church of God Toronto wouldn’t comment on Elizabeth’s allegations, but says it would not “tolerate or permit the occurrence of sexual abuse by elders or church members” and would notify the police if it occurred.

Three years ago, Elizabeth was riding the bus in northeast Toronto when she saw an ad for theAgincourt Community Services Association’s forced marriage project, with the telephone number for its hotline at the bottom. In that moment, she realized what had happened to her, even though, in her case, no marriage had occurred. When she mustered up the courage a few weeks later to call, she got Shirley Gillett on the line. The program coordinator had been raised in an Open Brethren church outside Orillia, Ont., a more liberal offshoot of the Brethren movement. “I couldn’t say that I was surprised,” Gillett recalls. “We had suspected that we were going to find forced marriage in small Christian sects in Canada.” Gillett invited Elizabeth to join her group of six or so survivors, which meets monthly. Elizabeth is now co-operating with the Tees Valley Inclusion Project, a non-profit group based in Middlesbrough, England, which is looking into more than 100 forced-marriage cases. Hers is their second Christian case. U.K. government authorities are reviewing the evidence in her case to see whether a conviction is possible.

Elizabeth, now 33, lives in Toronto and has a long-term boyfriend. When she tries to explain the forces that conspired to keep her in the relationship, the despair seeps through the sentences that tumble out of her computer. “I felt damned if I do (get forced into marriage, because I am a lover of freedom), and damned if I don’t (get married ‘in the lord,’ because I could not function in a Brethren society, and there are some things about the way of life I enjoy). It’s like being sawn in half and torn between two realities—painful. It’s mental torture. I felt trapped.”

After excommunication, her parents wrote her out of their will in what she calls a classic Brethren tactic to make her feel socially rejected. “My parents are being very influenced by the Brethren and it REALLY upsets me,” she wrote in a recent email. “I feel like I’ve lost my own family members.”

She warned her parents not to go to any Brethren weddings, because even celebrating a forced marriage could mean a jail sentence under Canada’s proposed legislation. Elizabeth is disappointed that SALCO is opposed to Bill S-7, because she feels the new law would help young men and women like herself who are born into the Brethren community. The day the law passes, she will be free of the shame and guilt of her failed relationship, the abuse and her excommunication. Finally, there would be vindication: the acknowledgement that what happened to her was a crime.