Due to the, often, unofficial and undocumented nature of most forced marriages, statistics on forced marriage vary. In 2003, the International Center for Research on Women estimated that over 51 million girls under the age of 18 were forcibly married. Forced and early marriage are most common in impoverished states in Africa, South Asia as well as the former Soviet republics. However, there are still cases of forced and early marriage in more affluent North American and European countries.
Forced marriage can be coupled with other forms of slavery. Children who are trafficked for sex may also be sold into forced marriages. An adult who is forcibly married may then be trafficked for labor or sex by and for the financial gain of his or her spouse.
Articles 1 and 2 of the United Nations Convention on the Abolition of Slavery, the Slave Trade and Institutions and Practices Similar to Slavery akin forced marriage to slavery. Forced marriage is an institution or practice where individuals don’t have the option to refuse or are promised and married to another by their parents, guardians, relatives or other people and groups. Early marriage is the forced marriage of a child, usually defined internationally as an individual under the age of 18.
Sometimes called servile marriage, forced marriage also occurs when a wife is forcibly transferred to another in exchange for some type of payment or when a widow is given no choice and inherited by one of her husband’s male relatives.
The key piece to forced marriage is that at least one of the marrying parties does not give his or her consent. There is no agreed-upon international minimum age for marriage consent. However, most countries set the limit at 15 or 18 years old.
In the United States, only ten states have legislation that directly address forced marriage. The U.S. State Department recognizes forced marriage as a marriage without the consent of at least one party. Duress, threat, physical abuse and death threats by family members constitute force and coercion. In the United States, forced marriage is considered to be a human rights violation and in some cases, a form of child abuse.
An arranged marriage is differentiated from forced marriage because the marrying parties agree to the marriage arrangement in an arranged marriage.
In the United States, adults and children are forced to marry through familial deception, cultural tradition, emotional blackmail and threats of abuse or even death. Exceptions allow children under the age of 18 to legally marry. Most states grant children, usually between 16 to 17 years old, a marriage license so long as their parents give parental consent. The other exception involves judicial approval and can allow people under the age of 15 to marry.
Unchained at Last found that between 1995 and 2012, judges allowed 178 children between the ages of 10 and 15 to marry in New Jersey. From this sample, a number were children married to adults.
The Tahirih Justice Center reported at least 3,000 suspected forced marriage cases in the United States between 2009 and 2011.