Abducted, raped, forced to marry her rapist. Murdered when trying to escape the marriage she never wanted. Forced into marriage for promises of ‘financial security.’ These experiences happened in three different countries, in different parts of the world. Forced marriage, child marriage, and so-called “bride kidnapping” are far more widespread than many people think, with dire consequences for the girls and women subjected to these harmful practices – and often impunity for the perpetrators. How can this be stopped?
Late last year, Equality Now hosted a webinar on ‘Global Best Practices in Combating Forced Marriages and Bride Kidnapping.’ Moderated by Tamar Dekanosidze, Eurasia Regional Representative at Equality Now, panelists shared insights into their work to combat forced marriage in Ethiopia, Georgia, and South Sudan and their recommendations for further tackling these issues.
Defining forced marriage, child marriage, and abduction for forced marriage
Forced marriage is a marriage where one or both parties have not granted their free and full consent to the union. Child marriage and abduction for forced marriage are both considered forms of forced marriage.
Child marriage is defined as a formal marriage or informal union before the age of 18. Abduction for forced marriage involves the kidnapping of women and girls who are subsequently forced into marriage and often subjected to sexual violence. These practices are a violation of children’s human rights and a form of gender-based violence. State obligations regarding forced marriage are further outlined in the Istanbul Convention.
Rooted in patriarchal values and gender inequality, child marriage is a serious human rights violation which increases the risk of other abuses, including domestic and sexual violence and early and unwanted pregnancy. It also hinders access to education and subsequent economic security. Girls are disproportionately affected by child marriage; they are six times more likely to be subjected to the practice than boys.
Despite Criminalization, Impunity Remains Pervasive
Throughout the webinar, each speaker underscored the pervasive lack of accountability for forced marriage and abduction for forced marriage in their respective countries. They discussed how, despite the criminalization of forced marriage and abduction for forced marriage, as well as crimes related to child marriage, laws are often under-enforced and do not capture all relevant criminal conduct. For example, Keti Chutlashvili, Social Justice Center, explained how the laws on rape in Georgia are based on force, not on voluntary consent, which allows perpetrators to evade prosecution, including in cases of sexual violence related to forced marriage.
A recent case in Georgia involving a 14-year-old girl, Aitaj, from the Azeri community further exemplifies these issues. In 2023, she was abducted by a 27-year-old man and forced into marriage. She was murdered by him two months later while trying to escape. All of this happened despite the knowledge of Aitaj’s mother, uncle, and school. At one point, Aitaj was interviewed by the police; however, they too, failed to adequately monitor the situation. The tragedy that occurred in this case portrays how, despite the fact that forced marriage is a crime in Georgia, Aitaj was failed by the system at every turn.
The Role of Strategic Litigation: Makeda’s Case
Strategic litigation is one of the key tools in human rights advocacy for achieving systemic change, including in work to eliminate child and forced marriage. The speakers discussed how rulings in regional courts can have an impact beyond the individual survivor to the country and region as a whole. Strategic litigation enables legal advocates to use established precedents to press for change in their own countries’ laws and policies.
Divya Srinivasan, Global Lead, End Harmful Practices at Equality Now, presented an important case of strategic litigation by Equality Now in collaboration with the Ethiopian Women Lawyers Association (EWLA). They brought a petition before the African Commission on Human and People’s Rights (‘Commission’) against Ethiopia to seek justice for Makeda, who was abducted and raped at just 13 years old. Although she was rescued and her rapist was arrested, he was released on bail, abducted her again, and forced her to sign a marriage certificate. He was eventually sentenced to prison; however, in December 2003, the decision was overturned. On Appeal, the judge stated that a woman could not be raped unless she was a virgin.
In the communication by Equality Now and EWLA, they noted the continued prevalence of abduction for forced marriage in Ethiopia, as well as reports that Makeda’s abductor had since abducted and married another girl after his release from prison.
After years of advocacy, the Commission found Ethiopia responsible for Makeda’s human rights abuses in 2016, stating that it failed to protect and prevent her abuse. They noted the high rates of abduction and rape of young girls in the region, despite criminalization and a lack of preventative measures. Finally, the Commission requested that Ethiopia not only pay damages but also adopt and implement measures to specifically deal with marriage by abduction and rape, train judicial officers, and take steps to diligently prosecute and sanction offenders. However, the ruling is yet to be implemented.
Conflict and Economic Instability Stall Progress
There were also meaningful conversations about underlying factors that contribute to child and forced marriage, including poor economic conditions, conflict, and cultural acceptance, and how these act as barriers to curbing the practices. The speakers emphasized that these issues must not be used as scapegoats but that they should be holistically addressed while underscoring the importance of the law.
In Ethiopia specifically, Hanna Lemma, Founder Addis Powerhouse, described how current economic instability is a driving factor for forced marriage, such that families can obtain dowry money. Likewise, Josephine Chanduru, STEWARD Women, spoke, among others, about how girls in South Sudan are frequently viewed as financial burdens by their families. Marriage is thus seen as a way to ensure girls are provided for and to obtain financial security for the family. The speakers further discussed the fact that political insecurity centers conversations of gender-based violence in conflict as a key issue in these countries but that child marriage and abduction for forced marriage are not recognized as consequences in the same way.
Recommendations for Reform
Finally, the participants each provided recommendations to better combat forced and child marriage and abduction for forced marriage in the future. These included to:
- Urge States to take comprehensive, multi-sectoral, and human rights-based measures to prevent and eliminate forced marriage and to address structural and underlying causes and risk factors;
- Enact and reform laws to ensure marital rape is criminalised, remove all legal exceptions, and ensure the definition of forced marriage covers all forms of coercion;
- Ensure approaches to prevention and awareness programming are survivor-centred and community-sensitive;
- Facilitate access to support services for women and girls who are in forced or child marriages;
- Integrate programs on addressing abduction and forced marriage into those on addressing gender-based violence as a whole;
- Conduct research and collect reliable data on forced marriage;
- Request the development of guidelines by the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights for the effective application of a human rights-based approach to this issue;
- Create robust training and follow-up mechanisms with legal institutions to ensure action and follow-through against perpetrators.