Christelle Hamel

tells us about assistance for forced marriage victims

Ined-Colette Confortès

Christelle Hamel, an INED researcher, co-directs the Demography, Gender and Society research team and supervises the Violence and Gender Relations (VIRAGE) survey. With Nisrin Abu Amara, a post-doctoral fellow at INED, she has conducted a statistical survey of 1,000 cases followed between 2007 and 2011 by the Voix de Femmes association, which assists persons confronted with a problem of forced marriage.

(Interview conducted in November 2014)

What was the aim of this study, which received support from the Service des Droits des Femmes et de l’Egalité entre les Femmes et les Hommes [French government bureau of women’s rights and equality between women and men]

The number of forced marriages is falling in France. Intergenerational relations in migrant families have changed considerably and children are now much more free to make their own individual choices. Forced marriages are far from being the norm; instead they are now a transgression of what is increasingly the norm in these families of freely choosing one’s life partner for love.

Here the aim was to identify the needs of forced marriage victims so as to better assist them and get a clearer understanding of their situation at the time the marriage took place. By definition, the study concerns only young women who request help, either because they have been forced to marry or fear they will be.

Can you tell us something about the women who call the association

Voix de Femmes receives approximately 250 calls a year, though this probably represents only a very small proportion of victims. The women who call are young, in some cases extremely so. One-fourth of the women who had already been forced to marry when they contacted Voix de Femmes were minors when that marriage took place;  one-fourth were between 18 and 20 years of age. These marriage ages are much lower than in the general population, where the age is around 30 years, and lower than among immigrants’ descendants—women of North African origin, for example, who generally marry around age 27.

What are the study’s findings about the situations experienced by these women?

Some case files contain information about parents’ motivation. Family honour is often cited, the primary intention being to control daughters’ sexuality. But what the accounts reveal above all is the magnitude and diversity of the violence these women are subjected to. Psychological violence is most frequent: emotional blackmail ("You don’t love us"), suicide threats, threats of hurting the woman’s younger sister or mother, denigration, insults. These marriages interrupt the women’s studies, undermining their chances of finding employment and so of acquiring financial independence. The women have been trapped; they do not have the resources to flee the situation. And this often leads to additional violence: more than half of the cases we studied note marital domestic violence. 

What are the main problems the association encounters in working to help these young women?

The immediate task is to find them a place to live. For many years, associations like this one have criticized the lack of specific structures for battered women. This is one finding of the study. The wedding takes place very quickly after these marriages are announced—reactivity is crucial. Voix de Femmes helps young women who are of age to file for legal protection; that is, to obtain a prohibition to take them out of the country, thereby ensuring the marriage cannot be held abroad. But obtaining such protection can be a lengthy process.

How might forced marriage prevention and assistance to victims be improved?

The various actors involved—police, doctors, social workers, legal workers—need to network together. Victims have many needs: obtaining immediate protection, finding a place to live, receiving psychological or medical care, being assisted in legal formalities, going back to school or finding training. As in all cases of violence, victims need to be accompanied in all these areas simultaneously if their situation is to improve.

Voix de Femmes has just set up a telephone line, "SOS Écoute Mariage Forcé," at 01 30 31 05 05.