Culture clash Shining a Light on Forced Marriage

Hundreds of young Berliners are married against their will each year. Leaving the family and community behind is often the only way out for those affected.
Forced marriage is a crime in Germany.

Forced marriages are a sad reality in many parts of the world – including Berlin, according to a new survey.

A special forced marriage working group was set up by the Berlin city administration last year to poll counseling centers across the capital.

The sobering findings included 460 cases in 2013, in which individuals were either threatened to be married against their will, or it had already happened.

Forced marriages violate the basic human right to self-determination, and those forced to wed in this way are much more likely to experience domestic violence.

A nationwide survey from 2009, commissioned by the federal government, had counted almost 3,500 individuals seeking help.

As the issue is so sensitive and many of those affected experience violence, the majority will never come forward, Myria Böhmecke of women’s rights group Terre des Femmes told Handelsblatt Global Edition.

Most of them have been in Germany for many years, sometimes even for generations, and are well aware that it’s forbidden to force their children into marriages. Myria Böhmecke, Terre des Femmes

Girls and young women are most likely to be forced into marriages. Of the 460 cases recorded in Berlin, 431 affected girls and women, while only 29 affected boys and men.

Many of those affected are very young: about 38 percent were between 18 and 21 years old, 20 percent just 16 or 17 years old. In four cases, those affected were as young as 10 to 12 years old.

While, in all the cases, the families had roots in other countries, including Turkey, Serbia, Iraq or Afghanistan, about one third of the women and men seeking help were born in Germany.

In a few cases, families trying to arrange their children's weddings were not aware of any wrongdoing, said Petra Koch-Knöbel from the forced marriage working group. They did not realize that forcing someone to get married is a crime in Germany.

“Most of them have been in Germany for many years, sometimes even for generations, and are well aware that it’s forbidden to force their children into marriages,” Ms. Böhmecke said.

Some also claim that the unions they are forging are not forced but rather arranged marriages.

Arranged marriages are the cultural norm in many societies in eastern Europe and the Middle East, where many of the affected Berliners have their roots.

In those settings, families, mostly the parents of the bride and groom to be, play a decisive role in screening and preselecting potential partners, as well as arranging the wedding.

The crucial difference between arranged and forced marriages, however, is consent.

“In forced marriages, one or more parties lose their right to choose their partner,” said women’s rights advocate Cheryl Thomas in a 2009 report for the United Nations.

“The distinction between arranged and forced marriages can be blurry,” Ms. Böhmecke said. “What’s crucial for us is a woman’s subjective feeling of being coerced.”

In some cases, a few of the families in Berlin were able to be convinced not to marry off their children against their will, Ms. Koch-Knöbel said. However, the report does not show in how many of the 460 cases the counseling centers were actually able to help.

For many of these young people, leaving their families is the only way out, said Ms. Koch-Knöbel.

“Many go back at some point, however, and some of them end up in a forced marriage after all,” Ms. Böhmecke said.

The Berlin report, released last week, is not considered representative, as only 159 of the 705 counseling centers replied to the survey. The poll is anonymous, so it is possible for the same person to have received consultations at several centers, and therefore to be counted multiple times in the survey.

“Representative data is hard to come by, because the topic of forced marriage is very personal, and research into it is time consuming and costly,” said Ms. Böhmecke.


A version of this article first appeared in German newspaper Der Tagesspiegel. Handelsblatt Global Edition editor Franziska Roscher contributed to this article. To contact the authors: [email protected]; [email protected].