When does intolerance become common sense?
An eight-year-old bride in Sana’a, Yemen, bled to death internally last week on her wedding night after her husband, five times her age, ruptured her uterus during intercourse.
Yemeni authorities are apparently outraged and pledged “those responsible” will be brought to justice. Who else, besides her husband, are responsible?
The guilty parties include tradition that condones forced marriages and child brides. The husband wasn’t charged.
Such abhorrent traditions have found their way into Canada and have led to brutal murders.
This fairly brings rise to the question: How much do Canadians tolerate before intolerance makes common sense?
A study recently concluded that hundreds of women in Ontario are in marriages against their will.
A quarter of them were married when they were just teenagers, claims the three-year project delving into forced marriages.
The Southern Asian Legal Clinic of Ontario (SALCO), released its findings late last week.
It looked at 219 cases in that province between 2010 and 2012.
According to published accounts, the report Who/If/When to Marry: The Incidence of Forced Marriage in Ontario found both men and women in that province “are coerced into marriage.” Ninety-two per cent were women, of which 25 per cent were 16-to-18-year-olds.
According to CBC, “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.”
SALCO spokesperson Shalini Konanur said, “I think the reality is that number is just a tipping point of all those cases we know are not getting reported.”
“And you have to remember,” said Konanur, “our collection was just in Ontario, so the national picture would be much more, I think, bigger.”
The report lists a number of reasons people are forced into marriages, by family members, community elders or religious leaders, as a means of upholding cultural traditions, and upholding family reputation and honour.
Shame and fear are “common themes in many of the cases,” said the report. In some cases, victims were threatened with violence.
“In our (Canadian) society, we are fairly good at understanding issues of violence, particularly violence against women,” said Uzma Shakir, a former director with SALCO. “But (forced marriages) is an aspect of that violence that we are not quite familiar with.”
Several years ago, a young East Indian woman in Calgary was shot dead by her brother outside a convenience store because she “shamed the family” by protesting a forced marriage.
Last January, in a crime that shocked the nation, a Montreal couple and their son were convicted of first-degree murder in the deaths of four family members — three sisters and the father’s childless first wife in a polygamous marriage.
All four were found dead in the family vehicle on June 30, 2009, submerged in a lock on the Rideau Canal. Their sin that warranted a death sentence? They sought a free life in Canada and that “brought shame to the family.”
The SALCO study found the majority of people forced into marriages are immigrants with Canadian citizenship and permanent residents here. About 31 per cent of the cases involved people living in Canada for more than 10 years before being forced into marriage.
“This is a Canadian problem,” said Konanur, “and it does transcend communities, religion and ages.”
One woman in the study had been living in Ontario for several years before her father took her to Pakistan to force her to marry her cousin, according to the CBC.
“I thought, ‘Yay, we’re going to go back home for a vacation’,” she said. Instead “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 escaped from Pakistan and is now living in Mississauga, Ont.
Her father has disowned her because she defied tradition and was an embarrassment to the family.
In Yemen, the death of the child bride is still being investigated, say authorities. But the likelihood of charges is remote because of tradition.
The United Nation’s Human Rights Watch has in the past urged the Yemen government to ban marriages of girls under the age of 18. Almost 14 per cent of Yemeni girls are married before the age of 15 and 52 per cent are married before the age of 18.
Unfortunately, forced marriages in Canada has become a Canadian problem.
It’s important that Canadians continue to embrace our multicultural nature.
But at the same time, certain cultural traditions, such as forced marriages, have no place in a free and tolerant society.
And our reaction, both socially and legally, must be clear and firm.
Rick Zemanek is a former Advocate editor.