New school year puts French on forced marriage alert

Wed Sep 2, 2009 9:01am EDT
 
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By Sophie Hardach

PARIS (Reuters) - As thousands of girls and young women prepare to start the new school year in France, activists are sounding the alarm over those who are missing -- teenagers sent abroad over the holidays and forced into marriage.

Most victims are of Asian, African or Middle Eastern descent and belong to France's Muslim community, the largest in Europe.

While countries such as Britain have set up special units that track down victims at home and overseas, activists say France is only now waking up to the problem.

"For a long time this used to be considered a cultural thing," Fatima Lalem, who is in charge of gender equality at Paris City Hall, told Reuters. "Something that happens, but that people don't look at too closely." Over the past year, France has begun to tackle the problem more aggressively. Last November, Paris City Hall published a guide advising officials on detecting forced marriages.

But former victims and activists, many of them second- or third-generation immigrants working in France's multicultural suburbs, said such moves were unlikely to help women married off abroad, or scared into silence.

Zeliha Alkis, who works for Elele, a non-profit organization that mainly helps women of Turkish origin, cites the example of a young woman of Turkish descent who was married to a Turkish man at a Paris town hall this summer. On her wedding night, she was locked in a room, and when she screamed and protested, her grandmother tied her up so the marriage could be consummated.

WEDDING SEASON

In many other cases, the women are married in the family's country of origin. Reasons include the family wanting to ensure the woman marries a candidate deemed suitable, settling a debt and procuring a visa for the groom. Unlike arranged marriage, which can be consensual, these weddings are performed against the women's will.   Continued...

 
<p>Fatou Diouf, a French woman of Senegalese descent who campaigns against forced marriages, talks about her family's attempt to kidnap her and force her into marrying her uncle at the age of 18, during an interview with Reuters in Sainte-Genevieve-des-Bois, near Paris, August 18, 2009. REUTERS/Jacky Naegelen</p>