Police get guidelines on investigating forced marriages

Indian culture and custom expert Pushpa Wood says there are blurred lines between arranged marriages – which could often ...
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Indian culture and custom expert Pushpa Wood says there are blurred lines between arranged marriages – which could often be successful – and those she labelled "coercive".

Police have been put on alert to look out for the "emerging problem" of forced and underage marriages among immigrant communities.

New guidelines added to the police manual warn officers to be aware of coercive relationships, as well as dowry-related abuse, bride-burning and acid attacks.

The legal age for marriage in New Zealand is 16. However, the police document warns of unofficial unions involving girls as young as 13, and says young men can be forced to marry against their will too.

Warning signs include a girl's sudden withdrawal from school or a short-notice trip to their country of origin, requests from relatives to perform virginity or pregnancy checks, or evidence of female genital mutilation.

Other signs are close monitoring of the child by parents or male siblings, suddenly shorn hair, a young woman receiving inappropriately expensive gifts, an unexplained increase in wealth to a family with a teenage daughter, or young girls shouldering responsibility for chores.

The manual advises that, if a family files a missing person report and an officer suspects they are endangered or might be sent overseas, the law may back police in not telling the family they have been found.

Shila Nair, of Shakti, an organisation that supports women and children of Asian, African and Middle Eastern origin who are victims of violence, said it had been aware of arranged marriages in New Zealand for the past few years.

These included forced marriage, dowry abuse, honour-based violence threats, underage marriages, and woman brought to New Zealand for arranged marriages but then abused and abandoned.

Shakti had been lobbying for better legislation to battle the problem, she said.

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"Marriages are not between two individuals but between families and communities. Women do not leave their marriages until their lives are in danger, because leaving a marriage is stigmatising and can lead to social ostracisation."

Pushpa Wood, Wellington president of the Global Organisation of People of Indian Origin, said there may be people in forced marriages who were too frightened to speak out, either because of threats of violence or because they feared their immigration status could be revoked.

"There is still a huge stigma not just in admitting violence but in breakups of marriages because in our culture it is still the woman's responsibility to make the marriage work. She is supposed to be the homemaker, she is supposed to understand she's an ambassador of her husband's family."

Wood is a Crown expert witness on Indian culture, religion and custom who has testified in dowry-related crime and murder trials. She said there were blurred lines between arranged marriages – which could often be successful – and those she labelled "coercive".

She knew of cases where people had been brought from India to marry and arrived to find their role was one of domestic or sexual servitude, or to be a source of dowry money.

"I'm aware of some cases where the passport of the bride is confiscated, for example by the in-laws, as a security that she will not open her mouth. I'm also aware of some cases where there have been threats that 'we will send you back home to your parents' – and that's an even bigger [source of] shame."

She had not encountered child brides in New Zealand, but did not feel "safe" claiming it did not happen.

Islamic, Fijian-Indian, Sri Lankan, and Middle Eastern community leaders all said they had not heard of forced marriages or child brides in New Zealand, but hoped police would inform them if cases came to light.

DO YOU NEED HELP?

Call the police or Shakti, a refuge and support service for migrant women, on 0800 SHAKTI. 

 - Stuff

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