‘Forced marriage? Oh, it doesn’t happen in my community’
By NOUMAN KHALIL
Vacation sounds great. Every single Canadian loves it — but somehow it has earned a bad name among some young women.
Katrina Kaif and Akshay Kumar’s romantic drama Namastey London is not far from reality.
Canadian girls, including South Asians, are being forced into marriages during trips to their countries of origin.
In 2006, it was the worst ever experience for Kalpana (name changed to hide identity) of Toronto when she went on vacation to India where she was forced to marry one of her relatives.
“Those memories still follow me like a nightmare,” Kalpana told SAF in an interview. “I was actually forced to marry during that trip.”
South Asian Legal Clinic of Ontario (SALCO), a not-for-profit legal clinic serving low-income South Asians in the Greater Toronto Areas, recently released its first-of-its-kind report, which shows disturbing facts about “forced marriages” within our communities.
The inclusive study titled ‘Who/If/When to Marry: The Incidence of Forced Marriage in Ontario’, which began in 2005 and involved 30 different agencies, revealed as many as 219 cases — 202 female, 13 male, 3 other and 1 unknown — were reported since 2010.
The study showed that the victims tend to be between the ages of 16 to 34 with most victims in the 19 to 24 age groups.
“This isn’t an issue simply for certain communities,” said Shalini Konanur, chief executive of SALCO. “Victims could be men and women and they come from all different communities across the board.”
The statistics confirmed that forced marriage is not restricted to a particular culture or geographical region.
The data included cases from 30 different countries from Africa, Europe, Asia, North America and South America. However, in 22 cases, the country of origin was stated to be Canada.
In 103 instances, individuals happened to be Muslims, followed by Hindus with 44 cases, Sikhs with 30 and Christians with 12 cases.
Born and raised in England, Kalpana’s case is a little different than others. Sadly she was coerced into the wedding knot not once, but twice.
“In 1993 I got married at the age of 18 to a Canadian man who was nine years older than me. He was never faithful to me, but we had two children together,” said Kalpana. “Unfortunately he was having an affair with the wife of his best friend.”
She said her husband’s affair was one of the reasons their marriage didn’t work out and after seven years they ended up having a divorce.
“I was frustrated that I left my marriage not because it was my fault but because it was due to his actions that were not appropriate.
“Those days the community wasn’t very supportive. Nobody one came down for my support,” said 38-year-old Kalpana, who has no blood relations in Canada except her two daughters, now 18 and 15.
Most of Kalpana’s relatives live in England or India. For her marriage in 1993, she came to Canada from England along with her father, who later went back to England after the wedding ceremony.
In 2005 when Kalpana’s past wounds began to heal, her sister contacted her from England and said: “We are going to India on vacation.”
“To me, it sounded great,” said Kalpana. “But then she said, ‘During these vacations we will also be attending a marriage ceremony’. When I asked, she replied: ‘Yours, with my nephew’.”
“I was astonished because I met this man when I was 15. But since then life had evolved, we were not the same people. I was a divorced woman with two children,” said Kalpana.
“But my sister managed to convinced me for this marriage. She said you are a divorced woman, who is going to marry you. She said our dad wants all this to happen.
“I considered myself a loser, and so I agreed to marry that young man,” said Kalpana.
Finally, Kalpana went on that so-called vacation to India where she once again got married.
After a few days when Kalpana came back to Canada, she suffered a nervous breakdown and was admitted to hospital.
“When I was in hospital, this young man was telling me to get a letter from the doctors so that he can come to Canada faster. My sister also changed her attitude and was no more supportive of me.
“My dad told me that it was my duty to respond to this young man as he deserves a better life in Canada,” said Kalpana.
But doctors refused to provide her with a letter for her husband to come to Canada because she was not suffering from any ‘serious’ illness.
“On this he (her husband) wasn’t happy. He said, ‘Whenever I come to Canada, you have to financially support me — and if you give me a hard time, I will kick you and your children out’.”
Kalpana said she tried to explain this situation to her dad, but he ordered her to respect her husband.
“My dad told me that if I don’t respond to that young man, he will disown me and that I will be dead in his eyes,” said Kalpana. “This was the time I realized something is not right, I needed to decide what to do.”
For help, she finally called SALCO where she actually learnt it was a forced marriage and not a real marriage.
“There I learnt my rights were breached because it I didn’t know I had human rights. I shocked to know it was a forced marriage,” said Kalpana.
Speaking to SAF, Konanur said SALCO believes this is not just an issue in Ontario and that forced marriages occur throughout the country, although the scope of this report confined it, unfortunately, only to collecting information on the incidence in Ontario.
Konanur said there is a need to spread awareness and educate women about their rights and families about the dire consequences of forced marriages.
She further said there is a need to change policies at the federal and provincial level such as establishing a centralized unit that could handle forced marriage cases in various areas and help and support victims of forced marriage victims.
SALCO has been supported by the provincial government, which has funded its work on the issue of forced marriage through the Ontario Trillium Foundation and Ontario Women’s Directorate.
SALCO has also been supported by a large number of front line agencies such as the Network of Agencies Against Forced Marriage (NAAFM).
As partners of SALCO, these agencies have been critical advisors as well as sources of tremendous information.
For more information, visit www.salc.on.ca.
Forced marriage vs arranged marriage
It’s a wrong perception to always consider ‘arranged marriage’ as ‘forced marriage’, says Salini Konanur, chief executive of South Asian Legal Clinic of Ontario (SALCO).
“Forced marriage is quite different,” Konanur told SAF. “By its nature a forced marriage happens when one or both partners have not given full and free consent to get married… actually they are forced to get married.”
She said it’s a wrong perception to always consider ‘arranged marriage’ as ‘forced marriage’.
“Many arranged marriages happen with the full and free consent of the people getting married. My own parents had an arranged marriage and lived a long and happy married life together,” said Konanur.
She however said seeking children’s consent in matters like marriages doesn’t mean parents should stop thinking about the future of their children.
“I have children and I don’t think you could ever stop me from dreaming about the future that I hope for them,” said Konanur.
“However, we need to encourage parents — that children be allowed to make decisions on how and who they choose to marry. Some may choose an arranged marriage while others may not.
“We should be supportive of those choices regardless of whether we agree with them or not,” said Konanur.
Time has come to change: Shakir
Uzma Shakir, director of equity, diversity and human rights at the City of Toronto, slammed the community for failing to address major issues in society.
“People see many things, but they say, ‘Oh it never happens in my community’,” said Shakir, former executive director of Council of Agencies Serving South Asians (CASSA) and South Asian Legal Clinic of Ontario (SALCO). “Well, you are doing a tremendous disservice to those (to whom) it is happening.
“The time has come to say, ‘It is wrong, I shouldn’t see my culture and tradition like this’.”
In her keynote address at SALCO’s report on forced marriages that launched the event, Shakir said there are plenty of people in the community who still think that all arranged marriages are not forced marriages.
She said it is because they don’t recognize the importance of consent in a marriage.
“We tell women you have rights, but then we abandon them when they actually exercise those rights. So to live in a society where everybody has rights, but nobody has the right to exercise those rights — it is a huge problem,” said Shakir.
“We need to provide all kinds of awareness and education to make a better Canada. This is not about South Asian, Arab or Latin American parents. It’s about Canada. This is about Canadian kids and Canadian families,” said Shakir.
‘Forced marriage? Oh, it doesn’t happen in my community’