WATCH: 16×9’s “To Honour and Obey”
“I was 14… turning 15 and that’s when I kind of got engaged with my first cousin.”
Rima is a 19-year-old girl living in Canada, hiding from her family. She asked that we don’t reveal her identity.
“I used to treat him as a brother. I used to call him brother and everything. I was in shock, I was crying,” she said.
Four years ago, in Pakistan, Rima’s family was forcing her to get married.
“Forced marriage is a marriage that takes place with either one or both members of the married parties, not consenting to the marriage,” said Farrah Khan, a counsellor at the Barbra Schlifer Clinic in Toronto.
While she was engaged, Rima’s family moved to Canada temporarily for work. Once here, Rima’s parents tried to keep her out of school, prepping her for marriage.
WATCH BELOW: An extended interview with “Rima”
“My mom would just bring up excuses to get me to stay home,” she said.
Farrah hears similar stories all the time.
“Sometimes a door being taken off of a bedroom… we’ve seen that happen. Or a young person being told that they can’t exchange conversations with anybody else,” she said.
“We’ve had young women be physically harmed, beaten up, harmed by their families, assaulted by their families as a way to pressure them to marry who they want.”
Rima knew she didn’t want to get married — and what she did next would change her life forever.
“I went to my guidance counsellor, told her everything,” she said. “I went to school the next morning, so it was just me, my mom… I got ready, usual day, went to school and I just never went back home.”
Rima’s story is one of the many cases of forced marriage happening right now in Canada. There are no national statistics on forced marriage, but in 2013, the South Asian Legal Clinic of Ontario (SALCO), released a report that found 219 cases of forced marriage in Ontario and Quebec in just two years.
“A lot of the people who reported were young… between 16 and 29,” said Shalini Konanur, Executive Director of SALCO. “The reality is I think for every one of those cases that we got reported there were probably many more that weren’t.”
Shalini says there is a difference between “forced marriage” and “arranged marriage.” In an arranged marriage the people getting married are consenting.
“They want to marry the other person. The way that they’ve actually met is through an arrangement or an arranged fashion by their parents,” said Shalini. “They are given the choice of whether they want to get married and they are actually entering in to that marriage freely and with consent.”
WATCH BELOW: An extended interview with Shalini Konanur, Executive Director of SALCO
Forced marriage is not a new phenomenon, in fact, the term “shotgun wedding” – where one or both parties are forced into marriage due to an unplanned pregnancy – has been around for many years.
“The issue of forced marriage itself is not endemic to a specific barbaric cultural practice,” said Shalini.
“In fact I mean if you want to link it to something, link it to the history of Canada which has had a consistent history of forced marriage since we were colonized.”
Forced marriage is not a crime in Canada – at least not yet. Last year, Citizenship and Immigration Minister Chris Alexander introduced Bill S-7 or the “Zero Tolerance for Barbaric Cultural Practices Act,” which would make forced marriage a criminal offence.
“We’re saying that anyone who is forced into marriage against their free and enlightened consent, anyone who officiates over such a ceremony, or aids in it, participates in it, could be a parent, could be a friend knowing that those taking part in the marriage are doing so against their will. They will be taking part… they will be committing a criminal offence,” said Alexander.
WATCH BELOW: 16×9 sat down with Citizenship and Immigration Minister Chris Alexander to talk about forced marriages and Bill S-7
But not everyone agrees Bill S-7 is the solution. Frontline workers like Shalini Konanur say their clients would not come forward if it meant charging their families.
“The reality is when we talk to people who were faced with forced marriage situations, time and time again they said, ‘you know if you’re going to tell me that the police are going to come and potentially charge my older brother or my parents or my uncle or my aunt because they’re talking to me about getting married, I’m probably not going to come forward’,” said Shalini.
Last year, Britain was one of about a dozen countries 16×9 identified that has criminalized forced marriage. But, in the year since Britain enacted the law, not a single charge has been laid. 16×9 found fewer than five charges have been laid in all other countries with the criminal provision.
Rima said if the law is passed, she would not charge her family.
“They’re my parents and I don’t want them getting hurt or getting into any type of trouble,” she said. “Would you want to hurt your parents?”
16×9’s “To Honour and Obey” airs this Saturday at 7pm.
BEHIND THE STORY: Producer, Hannah James talks to 16×9 Executive Producer, Laurie Few about why there’s so much debate over the government’s move to criminalize forced marriage