A new study finds 3,000 cases of young immigrant women being forced into marriage — across 47 U.S. states — and it suggests the issue is dramatically underreported. Those who refuse can face threats of violence, ostracism from their families, and financial repercussions that can lead to homelessness. Yet, advocates say there is very little legal recourse in this country.
MICHELE NORRIS, host: A new survey finds thousands of young, immigrant women in the U.S. are being forced into marriage. It's thought to be the first study of its kind, and aims to shed light on a hidden problem.
As NPR's Jennifer Ludden reports, victims of forced marriage have little recourse in this country.
JENNIFER LUDDEN: A forced marriage is not the same as an arranged marriage. Researcher Layli Miller-Muro says these women want nothing to do with the union, but their families and social circles coerce them into it, often using all kinds of pressure.
LAYLI MILLER-MURO: Pressure around financial - being cut off, ostracism from the family, being thrown out to - the house; to death threats, beatings, kidnappings, and that kind of thing.
LUDDEN: Miller-Muro heads the Tahirih Justice Center, a women's advocacy group that commissioned the survey. It finds in nearly every state, among communities from dozens of countries, there were 3,000 known or suspected cases of forced marriage just in the past two years. And it suggests that number is very much under-reported.
In many cases, families come from cultures where it's common, and expected, to marry off a daughter by age 15.
RAMATU BANGURA: They don't know what to do with a 16-year-old in the home.
LUDDEN: Ramatu Bangura is with the Sauti Yetu Center for African Women in New York, which took part in today's study. She says simply having a daughter stay for afterschool activities can seem frightening to parents.
BANGURA: If she gets in any trouble - and trouble can mean anything from being seen with a boy, being seen acting in a way that was different than what you would have wanted her to be, or to getting pregnant - all of that falls on the family in terms of any shame or any responsibility for that behavior, and so parents often try to preempt that.
LUDDEN: Bangura says girls can be forced to marry someone here, or sent back to their parents' home country to marry someone there. If the girl is a U.S. citizen, she may be forced into a marriage to sponsor someone for a U.S. visa. Bangura says communities keep these unions highly secret. And social workers and others are not good at reading the signs that a forced marriage is in the works.
BANGURA: Was there a trip back home recently? Has there been some money exchanged in terms of dowry? Is she all of a sudden not thinking about her next year of school?
LUDDEN: Even if advocates do know what's up, there's little they can do to stop something that is not illegal. Researcher Layli Miller-Muro says the U.S. lags far behind the U.K. There, the government has a special Forced Marriage Unit and designated protective order.
MILLER-MURO: They have a national 1-800 hotline for forced-marriage victims. They will even go in and extract U.K. citizens from countries like Pakistan or Yemen, who have been sent abroad by their parents for marriage.
LUDDEN: With today's report, Miller-Muro hopes American child-welfare agencies, law enforcement and others can at least better recognize the problem, and start thinking of ways to address it.
Jennifer Ludden, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.