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Government takes action over forced marriages

Not all weddings are carried out with willing partners Keystone

The government is currently considering how to tighten up the protection of victims of forced marriages in Switzerland.

There is little data on how many forced marriages there are a year in the migrant community, but a Zurich report has, for the first time, shed light on what people are affected and how.

The justice ministry is drawing up a bill on forced marriages which should be ready at the end of 2010.

It has its basis in a parliamentary motion adopted in 2007, which led to a first draft of recommendations. This then went through a consultation process.

Based on the consultation feedback, the cabinet mandated the justice ministry to draw up a bill along the lines of the draft, with the addition of a specific penal code provision on forced marriages.

Currently forced marriages are covered by a more general legal provision. Penalties for duress, for example, are up to a maximum of three years in prison.

A source at the justice ministry, who wished to be unnamed, told that a specific provision would not only make a clear statement but also allow for tougher penalties.

Overall, the source said, legal measures would be tougher but also more defined. Thus, the bill is expected to improve the legal tools for contesting a forced marriage, and it appears marriages with minors will generally no longer be tolerated, even if allowed in the country of origin.

Hot topic

The government has been looking into the issue since 2005, after it was raised twice in parliament, and published a report in 2007. The topic has also been a hot one in the media.

But the extent of the problem in Switzerland is still unknown as there is little information on the complex issue.

“You have different situations of constraint and force with regards to marriage which are very difficult to summarise under this heading of forced marriage,” Janine Dahinden, a professor of transnational studies at Neuchâtel University, told

Dahinden was one of the authors of the Forced Marriages in Zurich study, which was commissioned by the Zurich city authorities to gain a picture of the situation amid concerns that the practice was on the increase. It was published earlier this year.

The report – the first of its kind to comprehensively deal with the subject – found there were up to 40 cases a year of advice sought over forced marriages at social services and women’s refuges in Zurich. No figures are available for Switzerland as a whole.

Three types

The study outlined three main situations, including not being allowed to choose a marriage partner, and not being able to leave an agreed marriage.

Arranged marriages (with consent) and forced marriages are different, but the line between the two can become blurred, added Dahinden.

Forced marriages affect predominately female but also male migrants, of the second generation. The report’s results, however, confound some popular ideas about the issue.

“It’s not related to Islam as such,” Dahinden said. “What we know is that in families where there is a strong degree of religiosity you also have much more rigid ideas about who is a good marriage partner. It is more of a generational conflict between parents and children.”

The study tells of a 21-year-old Tamil who fell in love with a lower caste Tamil and whose parents tried to marry her off to a cousin. Another example is a girl from Kosovo who refused an arranged marriage (see box).

Raising awareness

The professor rejects a more specific legal provision for forced marriages, saying it doesn’t help the young people in those situations.

“They will never accuse their parents because this often means the whole family has to leave the country. It’s anyway hard for these young people because often they have to decide between leaving the family or staying and agreeing to this marriage,” she said.

Dahinden says that young people often turn to teachers, bosses or other family members for help. Raising awareness of the issue at schools, for example, is key.

Mediation for young people and parents can have good results and can stop the situation escalating, she adds.

The report confirms that the number of people seeking advice about forced marriage-issues is growing, especially as the children of migrants from the 1980s and 90s are now reaching adolescence.

This is also seen in the field. “It’s not such a taboo anymore,” said Karin Aeberhard, co-director of the Mädchenhaus Zurich, Switzerland’s only girls’ refuge. “And the girls going through this are perhaps tending to get help more than in the past.”

A 21-year-old Tamil falls in love with another Tamil, but he is from a lower caste. Her parents try to marry her off to a cousin. Only after a year’s mediation and a suicide attempt by the young woman do the parents accept her partner. The couple is now together.

The parents of a 16-year-old girl have arranged a marriage to a cousin in Kosovo and want her to go there to celebrate the engagement. She refuses because she has just started an apprenticeship and has a boyfriend. Faced with physical and psychological violence, she flees to a women’s refuge.

An 18-year-old Kosovo-Albanian man is forced to marry a young woman from Kosovo to fulfil his parents’ wishes. The wedding takes place in Kosovo but before his wife can come to Switzerland, he starts divorce proceedings in Switzerland. His parents-in-law demand money for breaking his wedding vows. The young man gets into debt to pay them.

The Zurich study Forced Marriages in Zurich, background, examples, consequences was published in March 2010. It was commissioned by the Zurich city authorities’ Competence Centre for Gender Equality.

There are up to 40 cases of advice sought over forced marriage in Zurich a year, according to the study. Separate statistics have put the number at 80 for Bern. A report from 2006 by a human rights organisation put the figure for 50 organisations in 6 cantons at 400, but this remains disputed.

The topic is also very present in other European countries. In neighbouring Germany, the government has issued guidelines to help teachers identify and deal with cases. In Britain, there are around 1,682 cases of advice sought a year.

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SWI - a branch of Swiss Broadcasting Corporation SRG SSR

SWI - a branch of Swiss Broadcasting Corporation SRG SSR