Online tool joins fight against forced marriage in U.S.

NEW YORK (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - A new website aims to tackle the hidden problem of forced marriage in the United States, which is thought to affect thousands of women and girls.

Designed to be a one-stop resource in the United States for people facing or fleeing forced marriage and those trying to help them, is a product of the Virginia-based Tahirih Justice Center, a legal services and advocacy group working with immigrant women and girls.

Forced marriage, defined as marriage that takes place without the full and free consent of one or both parties, occurs primarily among young women and girls from immigrant communities.

A 2011 survey by Tahirih, the first to be conducted on forced marriage in the United States, reported as many as 3,000 cases of known or suspected forced marriage in the prior two years, primarily among young women.

The cases represented women from 56 different countries and of various religions.

Tahirih said the online tool was designed not only to serve women and girls at risk but to raise awareness of the issue among those in a position to help them.

“We’ve done our best with trainings and outreach, but if a teacher from a high school in Idaho is grappling with this issue with a student, we want them to be able to better understand it, their student’s needs and the risks involved in this situation,” said Heather Heiman, an attorney who heads Tahirih’s Forced Marriage Initiative.

Many young women reporting forced marriage do not know their legal rights, are reluctant to get their families in trouble, and fear violence or retribution from family members who arranged the marriage, according to Tahirih.

“If they can look up forced marriage in the United States on Google and find ... that’s a huge step in the right direction,” Heiman told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

The website aims to help those facing forced marriage and service providers, including teachers, who want to assist them.

It provides a guide to legal rights, sources for emergency shelters, legal services and counseling, as well as hotlines and phone numbers for other agencies to call for help.

Underscoring the potential danger encountered by girls and women facing forced marriage, there is a red “Escape This Page” button on every page of the website.

In a situation where those arranging a forced marriage may be keeping an eye on a person’s computer use, clicking on that red escape button instantly directs the Tahirih page to that of a search engine.