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Forced Marriage is Human Trafficking: We Explain How and Why


By Anita Teekah and William Sheehan
December 11, 2019

Safe Horizon’s Anti-Trafficking Program (ATP) is dedicated to supporting survivors of all forms of human trafficking in New York City. As one of the largest direct service providers to victims of human trafficking on the east coast, we recognize that forced marriage is a form of human trafficking and are working to raise awareness of this issue that affects 15.4 million globally (Global Estimates of Modern Slavery: Forced Labour and Forced Marriage, the International Labor Organization, 2016).

In this blog post, we explain forced marriage and how it is considered human trafficking so that more people and service providers will be able to identify survivors and offer support.

What is Forced Marriage?

Marriage is the legal or formal recognition of the union of two consenting people in a personal relationship. Forced marriage is when one or both participants are married without consent. Forced marriage happens as a result of emotional and financial threats, pressure, or coercion. Therefore, usually one or both participants do not have the chance or power to consent.

Are Arranged Marriages a form of Forced Marriages?

An arranged marriage is a common tradition in many cultures. It is not the same as forced marriage. In an arranged marriage, two families may play a role to set up and marry their children, but ultimately, those entering into marriage make the choice to freely do so. An arranged marriage becomes a forced marriage when one or both individuals are denied the ultimate decision to marry or not.

Why is Forced Marriage Defined as Human Trafficking?

All types of human trafficking involve force, fraud, and coercion. The Trafficking Victims Protection Act (TVPA) of 2000 is legislation that defines and criminalizes human trafficking. Forced marriage is considered involuntary servitude under the TVPA’s definition of human trafficking. The TVPA defines involuntary servitude as a “condition of servitude induced by means of any scheme, plan, or pattern intended to cause a person to believe that, if the person did not enter into or continue in such condition, that person or another person would suffer serious harm or physical restraint; or the abuse or threatened abuse of the legal process.” Because forced marriage happens as a result of various threats, pressure, or coercion, where one or both participants do not or cannot consent, forced marriage is human trafficking.

Additional Abuse in Forced Marriage and Human Trafficking

Victims of forced marriage can also experience sex trafficking and/or labor trafficking. Sex trafficking is the performance of a commercial sexual act under threat of force, fraud or coercion. Labor trafficking is the performance of labor or services also through the use of force, fraud, or coercion.

For example, one of our clients is a woman who was forced to marry someone from abroad. After she was forced into marriage, she was threatened by her husband to perform sex acts for money. Therefore, she was a victim of both forced marriage and sex trafficking.

Forced marriage can also include more traditional forms of labor trafficking, such as physical work inside and outside the home. For example, if a woman is coerced into marrying a man who forces her to work at his family’s restaurant, then she is a victim of both forced marriage and labor trafficking, both of which are types of human trafficking.

How Common is Forced Marriage and Human Trafficking?

As reported in the 2016 Global Estimates of Modern Slavery: Forced Labour and Forced Marriage, the International Labor Organization (ILO) stated:

  • That at any given time in 2016, an estimated 40.3 million people were living in modern slavery
    • This includes 24.9 million in forced labor and 15.4 million in forced marriage.
  • Women and girls are disproportionately affected by forced labor, accounting for 99% of victims in the commercial sex industry, and 58% in other sectors.

What Help Is Available for Someone in a Forced Marriage?

Safe Horizon’s Anti-Trafficking Program offers comprehensive legal and social services to anyone who has been trafficked, including victims of forced marriage. If you or someone you know is in a forced marriage and would like to access support and services, please call our intake line at 718-943-8652. Help is available.

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