"They shut me up in the house"

Betrothed to a family friend when she was still a minor, Julia* rebelled, ran away from home and brought charges against her parents. This is how one young woman escaped from a forced marriage.

This content was published on July 17, 2012 - 11:00

Julia was in love with a boy. She met him on the Internet. She knew that her parents would not approve, and so she fearfully covered things up. He lived in a village in the Balkans, a few kilometres from her birthplace. She started meeting him in secret, as soon as the opportunity arose.

Julia was just 16 at the time. Her family had immigrated to Switzerland when she was a small child, following the war in the former Yugoslavia. The highlights of her life were holidays back in the old country, respect for family tradition and social control.

Her parents did not like her boyfriend or her attempts to be independent. So Julia was subjected to violence and betrothed to another man.

Violence and control

“We were at our relatives’ in the Balkans when my parents found out I was seeing someone. I was 17 and I had met him on the Internet about a year before. My family went crazy. My mother took one of those hammers with a plastic top and hit me over the head. My father threw things at me, and my uncle hit me,” recalls Julia, who is now just over 20.

“For weeks after that they shut me up in the house. I could not go to the bathroom without somebody watching me. I could not use the phone without somebody listening.”

To resolve the issue for good, Julia’s parents suggested she marry a friend of the family who lived in the Balkans. “He is a good guy,” she says they told her. “He will let you study and go to work.” Julia accepted reluctantly. She saw in this marriage a chance to free herself from slavery within the family. It would not be any worse than staying confined, she thought.

Once they were back in Switzerland, however, Julia found that surveillance by her parents was now replaced by surveillance by her new fiancé. He called her constantly, made jealous scenes, wanted to know where she was and with whom. He even started checking her phone, e-mail, and bank accounts. This was facilitated by Julia’s older sister, who acted as a spy rather than her ally. There was one argument after another, and the young woman felt increasingly isolated.

Caught between tradition and integration

From the time she was small, Julia had known that she was supposed to marry a man with the same cultural, ethnic and religious roots as herself. Any other scenario was out of the question. Her parents raised her in accordance with the traditions of her home country, sometimes going to extremes.

“I get the impression that women in my country have many more rights than my sisters and me. We couldn’t go out in the evening, we had to spend most of our time with family friends, and no other way was allowed.”

Her parents’ rigidity, continues Julia, was a way of them keeping in touch with their own origins, to emphasise the fact that being in Switzerland did not mean they had not forgotten their past. The process of integration seems to have just ground to a halt for Julia’s family, isolated socially and culturally and constantly looking for an identity.

“My home wasn’t just my haven, it was a stereotyped reproduction of life back home. It’s as if I never succeeded in feeling completely Swiss, and at the same time I feel like a fish out of water when I go back to our home country. Really I don’t belong here or there. I am everything, and nothing.”

Family pressure

Once betrothed, Julia only went back to the Balkans once in five months, as dealing with her fiancé was difficult. But she suffered on, because she did not want to cause a family crisis and ruin her sister’s marriage, which had also been arranged - but with consent. “You have to put up with things” her sister told her. “Love comes with time. You will get to know him and appreciate him. For me that’s how it was.”

Once back in Switzerland, however, things deteriorated. Her parents threatened to take her back to their home country to "resolve the matter". Harsh words were exchanged and death threats made. “For them it was inconceivable to break off the engagement. People would think I was a bad woman, and I would bring disgrace on the family.”

Flight from home

Under constant pressure from her family and her fiancé, Julia one day left the house to go to work and decided not to go back. She went to friends of friends who no one knew, without so much as a cent or a change of underwear.

Thanks to help from social workers, Julia moved to a home for victims of violence which deals with about ten such cases of forced marriage every year. She lived confined to the four walls, constantly fearing that her father would appear and take her back. Her father actually did hire a detective to find out where she was and showed up one morning at the home, wanting to talk to her.

Julia decided then to bring charges against her parents for threats and bodily harm. “It cost me a lot to take that step. I did not want them to end up in jail, I didn’t want to harm them.” Sentencing was suspended, and almost a year later, having left the centre and taken charge of her life again, Julia is slowly rebuilding contact with them again.

“In spite of all I have been through, I could not sever the tie with my family. Sometimes I go and see them, but they do not yet know where I live, or what I do all day. I try to keep my distance, to preserve my autonomy.”

Julia is now 20 years old and for the moment she does not want anything to do with men. She escaped a forced marriage and is now rebuilding her life, step by step. “Right now I feel that this is another woman talking, that all this happened to somebody else. I cried so much. I suffered. But the freedom I have now makes me think it was worth it after all.”

* Name known to writer

Forced marriage

The problem of forced marriages first became an issue in Switzerland in 2006, following a study by the “Surgir” foundation. This organisation estimated at 17,000 the number of individuals affected, but the methodology used was questioned by others.

These findings, though tentative, prompted Trix Heberlein, then a senator for the Radical Party, to move in parliament that legislation be introduced to deal with this issue.

Finally in February 2011 the Swiss government put forward a bill to outlaw forced marriages which is currently before parliament.

The draft provisions require that forced marriages be automatically subject to criminal prosecution and that unions involving minors contracted abroad no longer be recognised under Swiss law.

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Marriage: an inalienable right

In Switzerland marriage is a basic right under article 14 of the constitution and article 12 of the European Convention on Human Rights.

Marriage is authorised only from 18 years onwards, and it presupposes the free will of the partners. According to Swiss law no one can be forced to marry.

Current legislation includes the following provisions:

Under criminal law, a victim of forced marriage can press charges based on article 181 of the Criminal Code. The highest penalty is three years’ imprisonment.

Article 99 subsection 3 of the Civil Law Code requires marriage registrars to verify that all conditions for legal marriage have been met.

In principle, a marriage contracted abroad is recognised in Switzerland, as long as it does not fall short of the standards provided by the law here.

Accordingly, a marriage contracted abroad with a minor may be recognised if it is not at variance with Swiss standards and was contracted according to the standards of the other country involved.

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