EDITOR’S NOTE: Seaway News has changed the name of the victim in this story, as well as her family members, to protect her identity. The victim hopes to one day soon go public with her story and include her name and photograph so that she can further educate other young girls, especially those of Southeast Asian descent, about the dangers of forced marriages. For now her identity is being kept secret – because if her husband or family found out she was speaking to the media about the horrors of the abuse she has suffered, it’s very likely she would be killed.
At just 17, Chandra was told by her parents that she would be leaving Cornwall for a few weeks, to enjoy a vacation in India, the homeland of her family.
Instead something more sinister was being planned.
Chandra (not her real name) was taken to India years ago and forced to marry a stranger. This was a forced marriage that by Chandra’s account included liberal doses of abuse and neglect.
Chandra’s was abandoned in India, left with new in-laws who saw her reluctance to enter into a life with their son as a supreme insult.
“If they knew I was talking to you, I would be killed,” she said, referring to the practice of honour killings that saves husbands and families from the ridicule their culture imposes upon them when a woman strives for independence. “Forced marriages are a global problem, and a hidden problem in Canada. Many people don’t know that it happens in our own backyard.”
At the time Chandra was a teenager, barely old enough to drive and still unable to vote in elections, who had been cast off by her family – not only did they abandon their daughter but her parents also provided tens of thousands of dollars in cash and articles like jewelry and watches to seal the deal as part of a dowry.
“I was forced to marry this guy. I didn’t even know what he looked like,” said Chandra. “I was told I was going on vacation. And I can guarantee you 80 per cent of scenarios are the same – they are going on vacation with their families.”
When she arrived in India her parents didn’t even have the decency to finally let Chandra in on the secret. Instead she heard it second-hand from other family members who were openly discussing the upcoming nuptials.
“I was never sat down and said ‘You’re getting married,'” Chandra recounted, adding her parents finally arranged the marriage when she began talking of having feelings for a boy she met at school. “I pleaded. I pleaded ‘Don’t do this to me.’ I told them I wouldn’t talk to anybody. I was raised with different views and different thinking.
“They said: ‘You’re a girl – you have to.’ I had no say, whatsoever. I didn’t know I could have contacted Immigration Canada. I didn’t know that.”
What followed was one horror story after another.
Chandra, at 17, was expected to perform her duties as a wife, while also cooking and caring for other members of her husband’s family.
She eventually returned to Cornwall alone, but was still married. Her husband followed.
And while physical abuse had been a constant “from day one” in her marriage, things got downright ugly when they began living together in her parent’s home.
Ove the years she has suffered multiple broken bones, surgeries to treat the injuries, and has received no support from her parents.
“My dad, the only thing he said to me was, ‘What did you do to instigate this?'” Chandra said.
She is working now on behalf of those trapped in abusive relationships and forced marriages, to give victims hope for a better life.
“I could write a book on my story,” she said, adding she works with local schools as well. “I’ve only seen the number (of forced marriage cases) go up.
“As soon as (daughters) are hitting 15 or 16 a lot of them are sent back to their countries to get married without their consent. And the time I hear from them is when it’s time for them to go.
“In a community like this, everybody knows everybody. The parents don’t like me, because I am giving (their daughters) information. I am giving them rights.”
Today Chandra is, little by little, trying to unshackle herself from the torment of her family. She is laying the groundwork to eventually leave her husband, and very likely the rest of her family, behind.
She wants people to know her story so that others can be spared the horror she has endured.
“Things need to change,” she said. “First people need to be aware – especially people in professional jobs. School guidance counsellors. If a girl just disappears on vacation, there’s something wrong with that. I went on vacation. I never came back. Did anyone check into that? Nobody did.
“These girls are just taking off. Principals need to be aware of that. Police need to be aware of that. And the Baldwin Houses, they need to know the signs.”
Last year the Zero Tolerance for Barbaric Cultural Practices Act, passed its final parliamentary hurdle. It raised the marriage age to 16 in addition to adding forced marriage to the Criminal Code. It also toughened the laws around polygamy, with an eye to preventing immigration by those who engage in the practice and making it easier to deport people who do.
Proponents of the act say it is both necessary and prudent as it would make it possible for perpetrators of forced marriage and subsequent sexual assault eligible for life sentences.
That’s fine for perpetrators of the crime, but Chandra said more needs to be done to educate police officers, teachers and health professionals to patterns exhibited by the victims of forced marriages.
“Parents, siblings, extended family, grandparents and religious leaders are all involved in pushing and forcing these marriages to happen,” said Chandra. “This shouldn’t be acceptable in Canada. The message needs to be very clear to those planning to come here from other countries with their families that this is not acceptable in Canada. Forced marriage…is a crime against a human life. It’s human trafficking.”
Cornwall Community Police Chief Dan Parkinson said in an interview victims can be forced to make dire decisions.
“There was one tragic outcome approximately 10 years ago involving a young woman who took her own life when confronted with the prospect of her parents arranging her marriage to someone living in Sri Lanka whom she had never met,” said Parkinson, who added city police have not yet had to investigate a complaint concerning forced marriages.
But there could be a reason for that.
“I would not be surprised if this crime is underreported due to cultural pressures,” said Parkinson. “Persons of South Asian descent are the fastest growing population in Cornwall and area. It stands to reason that we may encounter this issue more frequently as this population grows.”
Debbie Fortier, executive director of Maison Baldwin House in Cornwall, said agencies like her’s are working to better educate themselves.
But even she concedes Cornwall area residents would be shocked if they knew just how many young girls are being moved out of this region to be forced into marriage.
“We see a fair amount of women who come through our shelter on an annual basis…and a large percentage of them are women who come from that situation,” she said. “It’s not as easily identified as one might see because of the culture they are from. It’s what is expected of them.”
Fortier said the second of a two-part workshop on educating community leaders on this problem is set to take place next month at the Nav Centre.
“Hospital staff will be there and social workers from various organizations,” she said. “We have a public education component to our services. One of the people went out to speak to a local high school and in the audience was a young woman who was in our eyes a victim. There was an honour killing that was on the books and ready to take place.
“After hearing our presentation…that young woman called us and we dealt with it from there. This was a very tedious case, but police were involved.”
Chandra is hoping that more cases like hers can be stopped before a teenage girl is shipped off to a life of struggle and pain.
“My dad told me the only time you leave this marriage is when you die. You stick with him,” she lamented. “One day I hope that people will understand more about forced marriage and how common it is because it happens more often than we think.”