Switzerland will soon have legislation specifically banning forced marriages, a social issue involving violence and isolation which raises tough questions about the integration of minorities from abroad.
Marriage “is not, has never been and cannot be a private matter”, wrote the anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss. For centuries, endogamy – the practice of marrying within a specific ethnic group, class or social group – was the dominant practice in almost all communities.
In Europe until a few decades ago, young people could be forced to marry for economic, cultural or political reasons. Today in Western countries, such compulsory unions are forbidden by law, but this does not mean the phenomenon has disappeared.
In 2005, the Council of Europe approved a resolution against forced marriages, and since then a number of states – Britain being the first – have adopted specific measures to combat the practice.
Under pressure from parliament and humanitarian organisations, the Swiss government published draft legislation on the issue early last year. Now being studied by the two houses of parliament, the bill would make marriages contracted under compulsion a criminal matter.
Victims would therefore no longer have to take legal action themselves and anyone responsible for such a criminal act could be imprisoned for up to five years. Forced marriages are currently lumped together with acts of coercion, which are subject to a penalty of three years.
No precise statistics on the phenomenon of forced marriages exist in Switzerland, and most scientific studies are at an early stage. In 2006, the “Surgir” foundation estimated that there were 17,000 cases, but the methodology used was questioned by other sources. So researchers are reluctant to name a figure.
At the zwangsheirat.ch advice centre, up to four calls come in a week about alleged cases of forced marriage, nine during the summer holidays. It can be young people of any age from 13 to 25, first- or second-generation immigrants.
But these figures are just the tip of the iceberg, according to Anu Sivaganesan, active in the organisation since 2005.
“The ones who come to us are the ones who have decided to rebel against decisions of their own families. But how many more are there in the shadows?” wonders the 24-year-old student at Zurich University’s law faculty.
For victims of forced marriage, the yearning for freedom often clashes with a sense of loyalty and family belonging, fear of physical or financial reprisals, or the real risk – for non-citizens – of being sent back to their country of origin, when their residence permit is attached to that of their spouse.
“Although mostly women ask for help – and their economic and social situation is often more fragile – forced marriages affect men too”, said Sivaganesan, a Swiss of Sri Lankan origin.
“In the Albanian community, to take one example, 30 per cent of our contacts are with young men who may have been born and grown up in Switzerland and have trouble accepting this kind of compulsion,” she said.
What would make parents forcibly marry off their own offspring? For Sivaganesan, “forced marriages have a lot to do with a patriarchal view of society and particular cultural traditions. To try to deny this aspect would be counterproductive, because as long as this topic remains taboo – denied for fear it might be used in political controversy – then it can be exploited by anti-immigrant groups”.
The religious element is not the main factor here, she said. “Among victims who come to our organisation, you will find Christians and Jews, Kurdish or Turkish Alevi Muslims, Tamil Hindus and Albanian or Kosovar Muslims.”
Focus on integration
For the Neuchâtel anthropologist Anne Lavanchy, who has conducted a study on this topic in canton Vaud and doubts whether the phenomenon is widespread, “there is no real link between forced marriages and any particular culture or religion. It is not a social norm in any country”.
What is involved here is the process of integration, she said. Finding themselves in a situation of social and economic isolation, some immigrant families have a tendency to perpetuate obsolete traditions or to go overboard in adhering to ancestral customs, just to maintain the connection with their country of origin.
The debate on forced marriages in Switzerland was launched in 2006 by Trix Heberlein, then a senator for the centre-right Radical Party, who brought forward the initial motion in parliament. Since then several cantons – prompted by the Federal Migration Office – have introduced programmes of prevention and aid to victims.
To combat the phenomenon, there is a need to understand it fully, Lavanchy and Sivaganesan agree. The major difficulty lies in the very definition of forced marriage and the thin line between a union imposed by violence and one that is arranged but agreed to.
The research done by Lavanchy in Vaud suggests the professionals themselves have difficulty distinguishing forced marriage from other kinds of coercion, like domestic violence or human trafficking.
“This new law has an important symbolic value, but in order for it to succeed in its aim, the issue needs to be depoliticised, seeing as it is regularly either trivialised or regarded as something absolutely barbarous,” Sivaganesan said.
“The problem of forced marriages needs to be seen for what it is: a violation of human rights, and not [an excuse for] some new strategy to drive foreigners from Switzerland.”
Parliament will debate the matter again in October, along with the revised legislation on aliens and political asylum, when it will probably debate the motion proposed by Alois Gmür from the centre-right Christian Democratic Party who wants forced marriage added to the list of grounds for expelling foreigners convicted of criminal activities.