Forced Marriage in the U.S.

Would it surprise you to learn that, every year in the U.S., thousands of women and girls are forced into marriages against their will?  The recently released results of a national survey conducted by the Tahirih Justice Center revealed more than 3,000 known and suspected cases of forced marriage in the past two years, alone, and Tahirih Executive Director Layli Miller-Muro recently told Newsweek, “We’ve already learned enough in the survey to tell us we’re just hitting the tip of the iceberg.”  In many of these cases, death threats were among the arsenal of tactics used by families to coerce unwilling brides to tie the knot.  Unfortunately, lack of awareness about this emerging issue coupled with inadequate legal protections leave U.S. forced marriage victims with little recourse.  According to the Baltimore Sun, while immigrant women fleeing to escape forced marriages in their home countries have obtained asylum in the U.S., no legal resources exist to protect U.S. citizens and legal residents from being forcibly taken abroad to the altar.  The PBEye is pleased to report that pro bono lawyers are working to change that.

Tahirih Director of Public Policy Jeanne Smoot told The PBEye, “The findings of Tahirih’s national forced marriage survey are both alarming and a resounding call to action.  Because a young woman may only have one chance to reach out, we have to ensure that service providers on the frontlines are alert to the problem and at the ready to help her.”  According to Smoot, pro bono will play a pivotal role in developing a U.S. national response to forced marriage:

The United States lags more than a decade behind the United Kingdom and a number of other countries in dealing with forced marriage.  Because the U.S. movement to address the problem is being led by nongovernmental agencies with limited resources, our pro bono partners are absolutely critical to amplifying our capacity and enabling us to make rapid progress.  Tahirih has been extremely fortunate to be able to call on the generosity of a number of law firms to support our forced marriage initiative.  The pro bono work they’re doing on forced marriage is especially rewarding because this is uncharted terrain in the United States and we face incredibly complex legal and policy challenges to addressing the problem.  We have a tremendous amount of work ahead, and we have to work quickly because the lives of thousands of young women facing forced marriages hang in the balance.

Mintz, Levin, Cohn, Ferris, Glovsky and Popeo P.C.*has teamed up with Tahirih to craft a legislative solution to the U.S.’s forced marriage crisis.  “When we were first asked to look into this subject,” shared Mintz Levin attorney Ella Shenhav, “none of us knew this was an issue at all.  We were extremely surprised!  Really?  In the United States in 2011?  Forced marriage?”  Mintz Levin lawyers and law clerks are studying foreign forced marriage statutes as a model for U.S. legislation, weighing civil versus criminal remedies, and assessing whether a federal law would pass constitutional muster.  At a minimum, says Shenhav, they aim to propose a civil forced-marriage protective order mechanism, along the lines of that provided for by the U.K.’s Forced Marriage (Civil Protection) Act, the violation of which would constitute a criminal offense.

Mintz Levin isn’t the only Law Firm Pro Bono Challenge® Signatory helping to combat forced marriage through pro bono service.  Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher LLP*†, Hunton & Williams LLP*†, K&L Gates LLP*†, and Latham & Watkins LLP*† have all represented Tahirih victims fleeing forced marriage.  Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld LLP’s*† Austin office researched court decisions for forced marriage cases and advised on the family law aspects of a Texas forced marriage case.  Kirkland & Ellis LLP’s*† Washington, D.C. office hosted a forced marriage briefing for policymakers and policy professionals that included representatives from the Departments of State and Homeland Security, Congressional staffers, and advocates.  And, PBI’s own Global Pro Bono Coordinator Julia Alanen fulfills her pro bono commitment by coordinating a national forced marriage prevention initiative that provides advocates and early responders with free legal technical assistance, training, and resources.  (Every member of PBI’s staff is encouraged and allotted fifty hours annually to do pro bono on the clock!)  Alanen and Smoot recently served as panelists at a conference on Forced Marriage in the United States supported by the Justice Department’s Office on
Violence Against Women.  Smoot told The PBEye:

Most attorneys are drawn to the profession because they are committed to the ideal of justice – but in their everyday practice, they may feel very removed from that concept.  Whether they’re representing a client or researching a policy question, pro bono volunteers feel a deep and immediate connection with the ideal of justice.  They know that what they’re offering to the vulnerable women and girls that we serve is powerful – they give them back a reason to hope, to hold their heads up, and to look to tomorrow and the next day without fear.

Pro bono projects like these offer law firm and in-house lawyers the opportunity to work collaboratively with professional staff and NGOs to shape the law and transform the legal landscape around cutting-edge contemporary human rights and social justice issues.  Shenhav told us, “It’s very satisfying to be working towards something that can actually change people’s lives.  [This project] this will affect thousands of people . . . and give a voice to women and girls who haven’t had a voice.”

* denotes a Signatory to the Law Firm Pro Bono Challenge®
† denotes a Member of the Law Firm Pro Bono Project