Skip to main content

Violence against women

Forced marriage: a violation of human rights

05 January 2023

A young woman, who escaped a forced marriage, is seen at the Catholic nuns' shelter, Sainte Maria Goretti, where she now lives in Kaya, Burkina Faso, February 23, 2022.  © REUTERS/Anne Mimault

“One night he came home and had the purpose to kill me, the children, and himself,” said Dianah Kamande, a victim of forced marriage in Kenya.

Kamande survived with 21 cuts on her head and face. Her children were unharmed. When they were rescued, her husband was left in the house.

“That’s when he murdered himself,” she said. He stabbed himself in the stomach.”

She became a young widow and a mother of two children.

According to the Exodus Road, a non-profit organization that works on fighting modern-day slavery, as of 2022, 650 million girls and women are being forced to marry. Within this dynamic, there is a continuum of coercion ranging from physical violence to psychosocial pressure. It’s a marriage where at least one is married without consent, against their will or is not able to exit the marriage.

Kamande participated in a UN Human Rights’ expert workshop on the dire consequences of forced marriage on women and girls and on the tools to end this harmful practice. The workshop brought together the international community, experts, forced marriage survivors and activists to Geneva, Switzerland.

According to UN Human Rights, forced marriage is a human rights violation and a harmful practice that disproportionately affects women and girls globally. The goal of the workshop was to increase understanding about the complexity of forced marriage including the diverse drivers and the need for context specific policy and legal measures.

“Ending forced marriage requires strengthened and concerted efforts in all contexts, following a collaborative approach, as we can only make a difference together,” said Hannah Wu, UN Human Rights Section Chief of Women’s Human Rights and Gender Equality. “We must address this issue in partnership involving all stakeholders at community, national, regional, and global levels, in both peace and conflict situations. Above all, we need to work with girls and women.”

Support for women & girls

After her traumatic experience, Kamande said she founded the organization, Come Together Widows & Orphans Organization (CTWOO). She took on this journey to heal herself and to support other survivors of forced marriage and domestic violence. She became a champion for the rights of widows, survivors of domestic violence, and the children who were left behind. Kamande also manages a program in New York, Global Fund for Widows, an organization that advocates for girls who have experienced both forced marriage and female genital mutilation.

I needed to create a platform for women to articulate their issues. We say no to all forms of gender violence here and I believe education is an equalizer.

Dianah Kamande, Founder, Come Together Widows & Orphans Organization

“As a young mother, going back to school is where I got everything I needed at that time,” she said. “I have seen so many women rise from nothing to something. I want these children to become better and greater women.”

Kamande explained that forced marriage opens the door for gender-based, domestic, and physical violence where men who marry these girls are often older and take advantage of them and may even sexually abuse them. Currently, there are 63 children in the program, the majority of whom are girls. They have been able to rescue some boys who have been through family violence as well.

Caroline Ndiangui, another workshop participant, is also a survivor of forced marriage. She visits people in villages to explain to these communities the consequences of forced marriage. Ndiangui also meets with girls, and she informs them that they do not have to get married when they are young. Poverty levels and peer pressure from parents and religion are among the main causes of forced marriage, she said. Through this experience, she started her own initiative, Teen Mothers Arise Initiative.

“I work with teenagers who have given birth through early or unwanted pregnancies, who have been in forced marriages,” she said. “I'm inspired because I've seen the results. I've seen girls who've become big people in society.”

She emphasized her primary purpose in this field is to be an advocate for young girls. She explained that once a young girl is into forced marriage, they lose their right to education and their right to childhood.

“Being given the role of being a wife, a mother for those who end up having children, and even the role of being child widows becomes too heavy a burden for them to bear,” she said.

Ndiangui got married and pregnant at the age of 16.

“Life wasn't easy for me,” she said. “I was going through verbal, physical, and emotional abuse. Today, I look at myself and my story. It was not a good start in life. I help girls in situations of forced marriage, I help them know their rights, and realize that they can always go back to school and create a better future for themselves.”

Health care workers, police officers, and community leaders in Kenya are working with Ndiangui and her team. They're helping to try and dissolve those marriages and send girls to school.

“I wish I would have known what my rights were,” she said. “Anywhere that it [forced marriage] is happening in the world, it should stop. Girls need to be given a chance to be a child, and a chance to be a girl. Let's allow girls to grow into women before we force them to become a wife or a mother.”