Is ‘forced marriage’ bill necessary?

A Members Bill  “aims to crack down on forced marriages”, but how much of a problem is it trying to fix?

It is said to target ethnic groups such as Indians and Pacific Islanders but traditionally in New Zealand pressure to marry has come from Christians of European ethnicities.

National MP Jo Hayes had her Marriage (Court Consent to Marriage of Minors) Amendment Bill  bill drawn from the ballot last week.

This bill proposes that 16 and 17 year olds who wish to marry must apply to the court, and sets out how the court is to consider the application.

Getting courts involved in consent to get married looks like an unnecessary interference by the state unless it is addressing a real problem.

NZH: Marriage Amendment Bill in first reading to prevent forced underage marriages

National List MP Jo Hayes believes forced marriages between teenagers are “slowly creeping into New Zealand society” and that the problem exists primarily in Pacific and Asian communities, where parents can pressure a young girl into marrying an older man for financial security.

She said some young girls were treated like slaves once coerced into wedlock.

Hayes said the bill would sort out which marriages were between consenting teenagers and which were forced.

At present, the legal age to wed is 18, but 16 and 17 year olds can marry with their parents’ consent.

Is it actually a problem? And if so would court consent fix the problem? And if it’s a problem why have it for a limited age range?

“I think [the teenagers] do it for their parents sake. I think it’s hell on earth for some of them.”

Marriages and relationships entered into voluntarily are as likely to to turn bad, and probably do in far greater numbers.

The numbers of young people getting married has dropped significantly over the last half century.

Teenage marriages were more common in the 1970s. In 1971, a total of 285 boys and 2304 girls aged 16 and 17 were wed.

In the most recent data, for 2015, 12 boys and 36 girls were married aged 16 or 17. That was a slight increase on the previous year when 33 girls and 9 boys were wed.

I wonder what data, if any, Hayes has on the ethnicities involved in forced marriages.

Labour’s spokesman for Pacific Island Affairs, Su’a William Sio, said he had not heard of forced marriages happening in Pasifika communities.

“I’m not sure what she’s aiming at. Certainly in the Pacific community, look this is the 21st Century. That just doesn’t happen.”

Indian community leader Jeet Suchdev said forced marriages were not a problem he had observed.

He said he did not personally feel teenagers were mature enough to marry and believed most Indian parents in New Zealand would agree.

“Our tradition is to try and get a good education, after [that] they want to get married.”

There could be exceptions in any ethnic group.

Forced or pressured marriages were more common when giving birth ‘out of wedlock’ was frowned on by New Zealand society – and this was mostly a religious (Christian) pressure.

Anecdotally ‘shotgun marriages’ were common, with angry parents rushing their children to the alter to try to avoid family embarrassment.

A worse problem has been brought up again recently, where pregnant girls were hidden away (sent ‘up north’ for a few months) to give birth. And often forced to give their babies up for adoption. See Harrowing tales of ‘forced adoption’ amid call for inquiry.

That doesn’t happen any more, or at least I hope not. More liberal attitudes to de facto arrangements, sole parenting, contraception and abortion has changed things markedly.

I remember in the early seventies a girl sitting school certificate at school while pregnant – her family supported her being open about being pregnant, which was very unusual then.

In the late seventies I sort of pretended to be married when I moved town, it just seemed easier at the time to appear to conform. Now few care whether couples are legally married or not.

It seems like Labour may support the Hayes bill. Labour deputy leader Jacinda Ardern said…

…Labour would support any way to combat forced marriage. But sometimes marriages occurred outside the law.

“The marriage doesn’t have legal standing but it has religious standing. It’s the same consequences for these young women.

“You can put laws in place, but if people aren’t going to conduct ceremonies within the law then it become a blunt instrument.”

That seems to be sort of a yes, but acknowledges it doesn’t prevent non-legal forced marriages.

The Green Party have not yet decided their position as the bill is yet to go to their caucus.

If Labour supports the bill (and National block votes for it) then it doesn’t really matter whether any other parties back it or not as there would be plenty of votes.

Ardern said the Family and Whānau Violence Legislation Bill, which is before the select committee, has proposed a new offence for the coercion of marriage with a sentence to imprisonment for up to five years. This would cover marriages not governed by New Zealand law or those not legally binding.

“We’re very supportive of taking action.

So there is already a bill that tries to address any forced marriage problems. So why would we need another bill?

“People are surprised to hear forced marriage is an issue in New Zealand, but it absolutely is.”

But how much of a problem? And how can it best be addressed?

I’m very much against forced marriages of any type, but I’m not sure that requiring court consent for young people to marry is going to solve much if anything.

Young people could still be pressured into convincing the court that they are happy about getting married.

Or families could just wait until the person or people getting married are both 18 or older.

So I wonder how big a problem the Hayes bill is trying to address (the numbers suggest quite to very small), and how effective it would be.

I really question whether the ‘Court Consent to Marriage of Minors’ bill is one that has sufficient merit to add to our statutes.