Marital Captivity: Creating solutions that cross borders

In the final blog of the series on marital captivity written for Savera UK, Shirin Musa, of Dutch organisation, Femmes for Freedom, considers the actions that can be taken to eliminate this harmful practice around the world and the role that private law can have in this objective.

“Migrant women and girls find themselves in no man’s land regarding the enforcement of their universal human rights. Migrant women who get married in their country of origin and later want a divorce are faced with comparable issues to those reflected by the woman in the film highlighted in the second part of this blog series, due to the clashing legal systems in place. Marital captivity can be regarded as complicated and easy at the same time. It is complicated because religious law is the foundation of family law, affecting norms and issues related to marriage. Religious legal systems have a transnational effect, influencing processes of marriage and divorce in migrant communities in the country of residence by cutting across multiple bodies of law.

However, if we look at marital captivity as the forced continuation of a marriage, it becomes easier to understand and analyse. If a forced marriage – being forced to enter a marriage –  is a human rights violation, then why not be forced to continue to be married? We have to think in possibilities and in a simple manner in order to end this violence against women.

In order to help migrant girls and women exercise their universal human rights, we need to build an international coalition among governments, NGOs, women’s and human rights defenders and stakeholders’ organisations. We can only successfully tackle issues like this if we exchange ideas, views, initiatives, carry out research,  and most importantly work together. In today’s multicultural world where national and religious legal systems coexist, women’s rights issues call for creative solutions that can cross borders and frontiers, and go beyond national and domestic issues.

After the second world war, an international human rights architecture was developed. What started with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was soon elaborated into treaties. The optimism of 1945 – a broad agreement on international human rights –  has not materialised, because international political developments have often gone in a different direction. But still, there are good examples of international public law laying down binding rules regarding human rights. For example, the ECHR and the Pact of San José (American Convention on Human Rights).

In both Europe and America individuals are able to bring their matters to an international court when the national legal means to address their situation are exhausted. If this has been the first step, isn’t this the time to start looking for a second step by bringing international private law in line with international human rights? Should we not take steps to enforce women’s rights by introducing the necessary rights into international private law, especially regarding marriage, divorce and self-determination?

This is a complicated discussion. Both within the women’s rights movement and within government and/or legal organizations, people are cautious. Women’s rights organisations think that this should be carried out in the international political arena. Government and legal organisations are afraid that a bold approach to international private law will endanger the progress made in the past 50 years.

We have a different vision: We see international private law as a vehicle to achieve change, for which the international political arena alone is not yet ready. By placing this subject on the international legal agenda, slow but unexpected changes may appear possible. For this, we need to build coalitions, we need to set up a system of cooperation between legal and human rights organisations, which share knowledge regarding international private law to government institutions.

The value of this for the coming generations of girls and women should not be overestimated. We must first take an important step: to begin with an amendment or resolution for a broader definition of forced marriage that includes the forced to the continuation of a marriage.”

Afrah Qassim, founder and CEO of Savera UK added: “We wholeheartedly support Femmes for Freedom’s objective to broaden the definition of forced marriage to include the forced continuation of marriage. No person should ever be made to stay in a marriage that is abusive, unhappy or that they simply no longer wish to be part of. We will stand in solidarity with Shirin and Femmes for Freedom and speak out against marital captivity in all of its forms.”