Hundreds of women in Ontario are in marriages against their will, with a quarter of them married when they were just teenagers, according to a three-year study looking into the practice.
The South Asian Legal Clinic of Ontario, or SALCO, released its findings today looking at 219 cases of forced marriage that were identified in the province between 2010 and 2012.
The report, titled Who/If/When to Marry: The Incidence of Forced Marriage in Ontario, found that both men and women in the province are coerced into marriage, but 92 per cent of those affected are women. In 25 per cent of the cases, the people involved were just 16 to 18 years old when they were married.
'This is a Canadian problem, and it does transcend communities, religion and ages' - Shalini Konanur, SALCO
It’s the first study to provide a closer look at these non-consensual unions, which are defined as marriages where individuals are forced to wed against their will, under duress or without full, free and informed consent from both parties.
"I think the reality is that number is just a tipping point of all those cases we know are not getting reported," said Shalini Konanur of SALCO.
"And you have to remember our collection was just in Ontario, so the national picture would be much more, I think, bigger."
The study found that the majority of the people affected are Canadian citizens and permanent residents, with people in 31 per cent of cases living in Canada for more than a decade before being forced into marriage.
“This is a Canadian problem,” said Konanur, ”and it does transcend communities, religion and ages.”
One woman, who goes by the name Haya and does not want to be identified, had been living in Ontario for several years before her father took her to Pakistan to force her to marry her cousin.
“I thought, ‘Yay, we’re going to go back home for a vacation,’” Haya told CBC News.
“It turns out my dad ends up taking my passport, telling me I can’t go back home to Canada and I’m just going to have to end up getting married,” she said.
Haya managed to escape from Pakistan and is now living in Mississauga, Ont., but said she was disowned by her father.
The report lists a variety of reasons people are pressured into marriages — usually by family members, community elders or religious leaders — including upholding cultural tradition, family reputation and honour.
The report says shame and fear are common themes in many of the cases it examined. In some cases, victims were threatened with violence.
“In our society, we are fairly good at understanding issues of violence, particularly violence against women,” said Uzma Shakir, a former director at SALCO. “But this is an aspect of that violence that we are not quite familiar with.”
The report lists several recommendations on how to deal with forced marriages across the country, including a national public awareness campaign, building a better framework for assessing cases and providing legal and social support for victims of the practice.