BY SARA SALERNO
A forced marriage takes place when one or both people do not – or in cases of people with learning disabilities, cannot – consent to the marriage and pressure or abuse is used. In the majority of cases of forced marriage, the perpetrators are members of the victim’s immediate family or extended family, therefore, victims of forced marriage who decide to report their case are particularly vulnerable and in need of psychological assistance and financial support during the criminal proceedings. Also, usually victims of forced marriage do not recognise themselves as such. For instance, in many traditional Roma communities, arranged marriages remain a common practice.
Every year, 12 million girls marry before the age of 18. Statistics says that 1 in 5 girls in the world are said to be married before 18, over 650 million women alive today were married as children. Child marriage happens across countries, cultures and regions. Child brides can be found in every region in the world, from the Middle East to Latin America, South Asia to Europe, even if child marriage happens the most in sub-Saharan Africa, where 38% of girls get married before age 18. The age difference between a girl and her future spouse can be huge. In some cases, the bride may be between 30 and 50 years younger than her husband. Obtaining divorce without the consent of the husband is almost impossible and consensual separation is a crime. This type of situation is so psychologically difficult that many women often resort to suicide in order to escape from this condition.
The consequences of such forced marriages are often terrible. First of all, girls who get married before they turn 18 are less likely to remain in school and more likely to experience domestic violence. Young teenage girls are also more likely to die due to complications in pregnancy and childbirth than women in their 20s, and their children are more likely to be stillborn or die in the first month of life. Lastly, early and forced marriages can contribute to girls being placed in a cycle of poverty and powerlessness. Most are likely to experience mistreatment such as violence, abuse and forced sexual relations. This means that women who marry younger in age are more likely to be dominated by their husbands. They also experience poor sexual and reproductive health. Young married girls are also more likely to contract HIV and their health could be in jeopardy. Generally, people who are forced into a marriage lack education and are often illiterate. Especially young girls, who tend to drop out of school shortly before they get married.
Focusing specifically on Malta, we can see that there is a diverse population with migrants from all over the world. Consequently, there are in the country, various customs and traditions, including forced marriage among children. For example, according to a 2017 report from the Women’s Rights Foundation, a 13-year-old Syrian girl was promised in marriage to her 23-year-old uncle in Malta, that’s why Malta has undertaken to eliminate child, early and forced marriage by 2030.
Child marriage is a human rights violation. Despite laws against it, the harmful practice remains widespread. The United Nations views forced marriage as a form of human rights abuse, since it violates the principle of the freedom and autonomy of individuals. However, only a handful of countries internationally have criminalised forced marriage, including the UK, Canada, Germany, Austria, Belgium, Cyprus, Denmark and Malta.
Specifically, Maltese law stipulates that anybody who abducts another person violently with intent to marry is liable to imprisonment for a term of from 9 to 18 months. The same penalties apply to any person who abducts by fraud or seduction any person under the age of 18 years who is under the authority of a parent or tutor. Moreover, the criminal code states that any person who by force, bribery, deceit, deprivation of liberty and improper pressure forces anyone to enter into a marriage is liable on conviction to imprisonment for a term from three to five years. The law also refers to “any other unlawful conduct or by threats of such conduct,” unfortunately this definition leaves a large margin for interpretation causing legal uncertainty. However, since the law has only been introduced in 2014, no data is available about forced marriages in Malta but a European Parliament study on forced marriages in EU member states showed that the lack of support structures aimed to assist victims of forced marriage hinders the prosecution of forced marriage in Malta.