Forced Marriage: A form of violence in the name of honour

How we define forced marriage:

We speak of forced marriage when at least one of the spouses has been forced into a formal or informal (e.g. through a religious or civil ceremony) marriage by acts of physical or psychological violence or threats of violence. The victim might not have dared to refuse, or their protest was not listened to. Financial pressures, loss of residence permit or the threat of deportation may also lead to a forced marriage.

We also speak of forced marriage when a partner stays in a conjugal relationship against her/his will because of fear of sanctions from her/his family or social network. A person who is not allowed to divorce their partner is in a forced marriage, even if the marriage was originally voluntarily entered into.

Contrast with arranged marriages

In practice it is sometimes difficult to differentiate between forced and arranged marriages. If in doubt, we listen to the point of view of the victim. This leads to the following definition: An arranged marriage has been negotiated by relatives, acquaintances or professional marriage brokers, but has been entered into by both partners with their full consent.

Are men also affected by forced marriage?

According to a study by the Federal Ministry for Family Affairs, Senior Citizens, Women and Youth, 7% of the persons threatened with or subject to forced marriage are men. However, they are usually older when these marriages take place. Also, the social consequences for them are different: men in forced marriages usually have more freedom than women and girls.

What are the motives for forced marriage?

The motives for forced marriages are manifold. According to the above-mentioned study on forced marriage, in 58% of the cases the “family honour” is the main motive for forcing someone into the marriage. But financial reasons can also play a part: 19.1% of the victims stated, that their family received money for the marriage. In about 4% the marriage was meant to regulate the children’s sexual orientation: They were compelled to marry, because they were gay or lesbian. Another motive for forced marriage is getting a legal residence status or a visa for the partner abroad to come to Germany – which accounts to 13.4% of forced marriage, according to the study. The girls and young women who come to Germany from the parents’ countries of origin are regarded by patriarchal families as less ‘westernised’ and thus better suited for a marriage that fulfils the parents’ expectations.

Is forced marriage illegal and what is the situation in Germany?

In almost all countries worldwide, forced marriage is against the law. In Germany, forced marriage is explicitly considered a criminal offence (see §237 StGB) and is penalized with imprisonment from 6 months to 5 years. Abductions to foreign countries for the purpose of marriage or the intention of forced marriage during holidays abroad are also liable to prosecution, even if the marriage does not occur. Forced marriages abroad are also now a punishable offence, as they have been added to the catalogue of offences subject to extraterritorial jurisdiction. This means that independent from the legislation in the foreign country, the German justice system can prosecute these cases when the offenders return, if the victim’s legal domicile or regular residence is in Germany.

So far, there are no representative studies on the exact number of victims of forced marriage in Germany, since the total number of victims would be difficult to determine. However, some countries have conducted surveys at different types of organisations, such as, for example, specialised counselling centres in Hamburg and Baden-Württemberg. According to a 2007 Berlin survey, 378 girls and young women were threatened by or subject to forced marriage. A follow-up study from 2013 showed 460 cases (meaning an increase by 18%).

The first nationwide study regarding forced marriage was published in November 2011. The Federal Ministry for Family Affairs, Senior Citizens, Women and Youth commissioned the study that was then realized by the Lawaetz Foundation in cooperation with TERRE DES FEMMES and Torsten Schaak (Office for Socio-political Counselling). The study was also accompanied by an advisory committee. 1445 counselling centres throughout Germany were contacted and asked about their experiences with cases of forced marriage. 830 of them responded and reported a total of 3,443 cases of forced marriage in 2008 alone – 93% of them involving girls or women. Almost one-third of the victims were underage, while 40% were between 18 and 21 years old.

To protect the particularly vulnerable group of minors, the Bundestag passed the Law to Fight Child Marriages (entered into force on July 22nd, 2017). The legal age for marriage is now 18 years, without exceptions, and this applies both to German citizens and foreign nationals. In addition, the new law prohibits any marriage or engagement of minors even in a traditional or religious ceremony.

Marital dissolution

A marital dissolution can be requested, if one of the spouses was forced into the marriage through the use of threats (§ 1314 Abs. 2 Nr. 4 BGB): this is considered a forced marriage. This request must be submitted by a lawyer within 3 years of the marriage date. This prolonged annulment period applies to forced marriages, which took place after the law against forced marriages (§§ 1317 Abs. 1 Satz 1 i.V.m. 1314 Abs. 2 Nr. 4 BGB) took effect in 2011.

The Law to fight Child Marriages (§1314 Para.1 BGB) adds another ground for annulment: if one of the marriage partners is a minor. The annulment proceedings can be initiated at the request of the minor or they have to be initiated at the request of the responsible authority.

Forced marriage and other countries

Certain types of forced marriage have an international aspect that poses significant legal risks for the victims. As mentioned above, men and women living in Germany are married off to prospective spouses living abroad and who then in turn can legally immigrate to Germany under family reunification. The foreign spouse’s residence permit is tied to the marriage status for three years. In exceptional cases, it is possible to gain the independent resident permit earlier, e.g. in the case of a forced marriage. The problem is, that the victims themselves have to prove that they were forced into the marriage in question. In practice, this is a big obstacle for the recognition of forced marriage as an exceptional case.

A different case are minor wives arriving in Germany with their “husband”. Since the beginning of the war in Syria, their number has increased. On the one hand, the number of marriages with one minor spouse has tripled in Syria itself since the beginning of the war. On the other hand, the refugee flows are also favouring early marriages. Parents marry off their daughters at a very young age in order to supposedly protect them from assault. With the entry into force of the new Law to Fight Child Marriages minor wives arriving in Germany without their parents or guardians are considered to be unaccompanied minors. They are immediately taken into custodial care by the youth welfare office. If the minor spouse was under the age of 16 when the marriage took place, this marriage is automatically considered void in Germany. If the minor spouse was between 16 and 18 years old when the marriage took place, the marriage can be annulled in Germany. However, the new law ensures that people whose marriage is voided or annulled due to the underage status of a spouse experience no negative consequences regarding their residential permit or asylum proceedings.

Another case of forced international marriages is the abduction with the intent to force the abducted person into marriage. In this type of forced marriage, girls and boys are taken on a holiday to their own or their parents’ country of origin. They are then forcibly engaged or married off, and frequently have to remain in that country. According to the above-mentioned nationwide survey, more than half of the forced marriages (52%) take place or are planned to take place abroad. 36.2% of those affected by threats of forced marriage fear that they will have to stay abroad permanently after their forced marriage. Only 7% of the cases in counselling centres involve people who have already been displaced abroad, which suggests a high dark figure of unreported cases.

In contrast to the prior legislation, someone’s German residence permit does not expire anymore after spending six months outside of the country. If the girl or woman was forced into marriage through violence or threats and if she was prevented from returning to Germany, she is now allowed to re-enter Germany within 10 years (§51 Abs. 4 Satz 2 AufenthG) – provided she can prove that she was forced into the marriage. In addition, girls and women can even claim their right to return if their residence permit has expired (§37 Abs. 2a AufenthG). The requirement here is that person is deemed to be able to integrate into German society because of his/her previous education and lived experience in Germany (§ 37 Abs. 2a AufenthG).