The Intersection of Forced Marriage and Human Trafficking

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Written by Terri Waldron

While human trafficking and forced marriage are distinguishably different human rights violations, there can be similarities in the experiences for survivors of these crimes. The vulnerabilities that leave individuals susceptible to human trafficking are often the same vulnerabilities that leave them susceptible to forced marriages. These may include things like financial instability, familial relationships, or immigration status.

While not all survivors of forced marriage experience human trafficking, forced marriage can sometimes act as a means of facilitation for traffickers. For example, forced marriages can include elements of labor trafficking in cases of servile marriages. Both human trafficking and forced marriage can employ similar tactics of exploitation and harm. Additionally, some forced marriages can be motivated by a family’s financial needs, like settling a debt. This can mimic some of the driving financial forces behind human trafficking. These power imbalances are evident and can lead to forced marriage victims feeling as though there are barriers to their safety. They may fear retribution from their families, punishment or shame from their community members, the U.S. immigration system, or physical and emotional harm. Similar fears have been reported by trafficking survivors.

Because of the intersection between these two human rights violations, providers need to understand forced marriage to both recognize it and distinguish it from trafficking. It is a given that forced marriage involves a marriage between two people. This can be either a spiritual/cultural marriage in the participant’s community or a legal marriage. Forced marriage in particular also includes a distinct lack of consent from one or both parties; one of the individuals involved has to be unwillingly participating. The coercive nature of forced marriage can come from the individual’s new partner, a family member, or community. When attempting to identify a forced marriage situation, it is crucial that providers avoid relying on family or community members, as they are often the perpetrators of the marriages.

It is important to distinguish between the two issues and appropriately label them. Many of the signs of human trafficking can mirror the signs of forced marriage. Categorizing cases correctly allows providers to offer the appropriate services. For example, both types of survivors can benefit from comprehensive housing services. However, providing pro-bono divorce litigation support is a service specifically for forced marriage survivors. Additionally, advocacy strategies are different for forced marriages. Since marriage is a state-mandated matter, legislation must be enacted on a state-by-state basis. There is currently no federal-level legislation addressing forced marriage. Slowly, states are beginning to push forward legislation specifically addressing forced marriage within their state borders. Groups like the Tahirih Forced Marriage Working Group are taking part in the fight to propel the advocacy and direct services efforts around this issue. While some agencies can administer screenings for forced marriages, they mostly proven to be ineffective. The respondent’s lack of ability to effectively identify forced marriage cases is why providers must be aware and knowledgeable about this human rights violation and identify proper referral sources to link the survivor. The intersection between both cases of abuse makes forced marriage a relevant issue for human trafficking providers.