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Forced Marriage of Children Happens in America, Too
Posted on Jan 25, 2017
By Amelia Pang
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Naila Amin appeared to have an ordinary American childhood. She lived in a middle-class house on Long Island, New York. Her parents doted on her. None of her teachers or neighbors could have guessed that she had been betrothed to a man since age 8.
At 13, Amin was forced to marry the then 26-year-old man during a family trip to Pakistan. She returned to middle school in New York afterward. She did not take the marriage seriously. Her American life carried on as usual. She pierced her nose. She started dating in high school.
Her parents disapproved of her behavior. When she was 15, they moved with her to Pakistan, where her husband raped her night after night. She tried to swallow bleach, although she couldn’t bring herself to drink enough of the pungent liquid to die.
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Her husband confiscated her cellphone and passport. Amin convinced an uncle to call U.S. Child Protective Services (CPS) on her behalf, but it was too late. U.S. authorities could not intervene in a marriage deemed legal in another country.
Such marriages take place more often than one might think. Forced marriages are not uncommon for American girls as young as 4, although on average these girls and women are between 14 and 25 when they marry.
Between 2009 and 2011, at least 3,000 girls and young women from 47 U.S. states were forced into marriage—including many under the age of 18. The data come from a survey conducted by the Tahirih Justice Center, a nongovernmental organization that provides pro bono legal services for abused immigrant women and girls in the United States.
Minors attempting to escape from forced marriages have fewer options than adults. Most women’s shelters do not take in girls under the age of 18. For those that do, CPS or legal guardians are called after 24 hours.
Amin is now 26. She recently launched the Naila Amin Foundation, dedicated to creating the first shelter in the U.S. to protect underage American girls from child marriages and honor killings.
Amin is a rare child marriage survivor who escaped captivity and eventually returned to the U.S. This was thanks to the fact that, before the final trip to Pakistan, Amin had briefly entered foster care because her parents had beaten her severely for dating in high school.
Despite that, in foster care, she missed home. She felt sick with sadness when her mother visited the group home on Saturdays to bring a week’s worth of home-cooked halal food. She felt stripped of her Muslim identity. She ran away and returned to her parents’ house.
At age 14, Amin stopped going to school and lived covertly at home. CPS workers made weekly surprise visits, but Amin hid in the closet during the inspections.
Five months after she and her family moved to Pakistan, Amin’s parents returned to the United States. Because her uncle had called CPS, Amin’s mother was arrested upon her return and charged with kidnapping.
Her father had no choice but to ask Amin’s husband to allow Amin to return to the United States.
Honor violence is all too familiar to Amin.
Before her parents’ return to the U.S. she had tried to run away from her husband’s house in Pakistan. Hearing that Amin was gone, her father reached for his gun, clutching it tight as he waited for male relatives to catch her.
The men caught Amin and forced her to return to her husband. To protect Amin’s life, other family members locked her father in the house for days. They hoped he would put away his gun. He eventually did.
Many are not as lucky. Most girls at risk of a child marriage or honor killing in the U.S. do not come to the attention of CPS or other social service agencies.
In 2009, when 20-year-old Noor Almaleki, an Iraqi-American, rejected an arranged marriage in Arizona, her father struck and killed her with his car.
In 2008, Yaser Said shot his two teenage daughters in the back of his taxicab in Texas. He killed one for having a boyfriend and the other for rejecting an arranged marriage to an older man in Egypt.
Sixty-seven percent of the girls and young women surveyed by the Tahirih Justice Center said their issues had not been identified as problems by local agencies.
Forced marriages are a culturally sensitive and complex issue that most government agencies—such as women’s shelters, CPS and local law enforcement agencies—are not equipped to handle.
The typical signs of child abuse—physical injuries, frequent absences from school and malnourishment—often don’t come into the equation.
CPS does not view impending child marriages as abuse. It cannot take action until abuse has occurred. And most of the time, CPS can’t intervene when an American girl is forced into marriage overseas.
But not all child marriages take place overseas. Many occur on American soil.
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