Understanding Arranged and Forced Marriage

Many people wonder whether arranged and forced marriages are the same thing. They are not.

Arranged marriages involve the assistance of family or community members to select spouses, but both parties give free and full consent to be married at that time and to the other person. In the case of a forced marriage, at least one of the individuals does not or cannot give free and full consent to be married.

In fact, arranged and forced marriage exist on a spectrum, where consent and the ability to ask questions, have preferences, change one’s mind, or reject a proposal are critical factors. An arranged marriage may start with an individual having full participation in the spouse selection process, but over time the family may begin to disregard the individual’s questions and concerns, dismissing the individual’s preferences entirely – moving the individual into a situation where he or she is facing a forced marriage.

In an arranged marriage, if either party does not wish to go forward, the planned marriage may be terminated at any time. A critical difference between arranged and forced marriages is that when one agrees to have family arrange a marriage someday, it does not mean giving up the right to change one’s mind, or to ultimately say no – whether that’s “not at all,” “not now,” or “not to this person.”

In a forced marriage, a person may face severe consequences – real or threatened – for refusing to marry. These include:

  • Emotional blackmail (“If you don’t agree, I will kill myself”)
  • Isolation/Exclusion from the family or community (family severely limits individual’s social contacts or ability to leave the home; individual not allowed to go to school)
  • Taking away money and support (family threatens to kick the individual out/withdraw financial support)
  • Immigration related threats (threatening to get the individual deported)
  • Stalking (family member follows the individual when they leave their home)
  • Holding someone captive (keeping the individual inside the home, keeping the individual physically restrained)
  • Denying access to medical care
  • Threats of physical violence (against the individual facing forced marriage, his/her family members, his/her current boyfriend/girlfriend, or others)
  • Physical violence
  • Death threats

These tactics can put an incredible amount of pressure on an individual and can compromise or eliminate his or her ability to say no to an unwanted marriage. Every person will feel the impact of these tactics differently and individual reactions will vary.