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Germany

Berlin moves to strengthen law against forced marriages

The cabinet has approved a proposal that would make forcing someone to marry a felony. The bill, intended to protect women from immigrant families, also calls for stricter oversight of integration course attendance.

A woman's hands, bound at the wrists

Some women from immigrant families are bound to marry strangers or relatives

Germany's ongoing debate over the integration of foreigners took on a new form this week when the cabinet gave its approval to an interior ministry plan to strictly outlaw the practice of forced marriage.

Precise figures as to how many women are being forced to marry against their will, usually to men of their family's choosing from their ancestral homelands, are not available. Anecdotal evidence, however, suggests that as many as several hundred in Germany are being forced to marry against their will every year.

In any case, for members of the current center-right government like Max Stadler, a legal expert for the coalition's junior partners, the liberal Free Democrats (FDP), the problem was urgent enough to tackle.

"The freedom to pick a spouse of one's choice is such a fundamental liberty that we felt we needed to protect it by law," he said.

Substantive measures

The bill, which the German cabinet approved on Wednesday, would make it a felony to force someone to marry. Forced marriage had already been ruled illegal under federal statutes barring aggravated coercion, but the new legislation, which would provide for sentences of up to five years in prison, would make the prohibition more specific.

It would also significantly lengthen the time period in which women who have lived in Germany, but were then taken abroad to enter into forced marriages, woulld have to lodge complaints with German authorities, in order to regain their right to residence in Germany. Up until now, women affected by the practice could lose their right to live in Germany after six months. Under the new law they would have 10 years to seek legal recourse.

Justice Minister Sabine Leutheuser-Schnarrenberger described the bill as a strong signal that the government was not prepared to tolerate traditions that it feels run counter to German values, and that expected families with immigrant backgrounds to take on those values. Still, she said, the law was no magic wand.

German Justice Minister Sabine Leutheuser-Schnarrenberger

Leutheuser-Schnarrenberger pushed for the bill

"Cases of forced marriages have to be dealt with by investigators who largely depend on the information given to them, and it's clear that the problems police have in obtaining relevant information won't go away by virtue of our new legislation," she said.

Welcome step

The right of women to turn to German authorities for help for up to 10 years after a forced marriage, even in the face of disapproval by their families, is an important step, said Heidemarie Grobe of Terre des Femmes.

The group, which is active in many women's rights issues including the prevention of forced marriages, receives about 400 calls a year from women who feel they are under threat of forced marriage.

"It used to be that families could send their daughter ‘home'," said Grobe, "take away her passport or residency papers, and after six months she couldn't do anything about it."

Grobe, a sociologist who often gives talks to schoolchildren on women's rights issues, takes pride in the rights German women have won, and likes to remind girls from immigrant backgrounds that it wasn't always that way.

"I always tell them ‘my own great-grandmother was forced to marry - we had such circumstances too,'" she said. "I do the work that I do so that those times don't ever come back."

Taking attendance

Another element of the bill would mandate that immigrants who have been told to attend integration courses must do so within a certain time or face penalties, up to and including deportation.

The senior coalition partners, the Christian Democrats (CDU) trumpeted the provision as a way of getting tough on immigrants who draw benefits from the state but are unwilling to integrate.

"Given that these migrants enjoy state benefits it seems only fair and logical that regional authorities should regularly check whether people really attend these courses, or are refusing to do so," said the CDU's spokesman on interior affairs, Wolfgang Bosbach.

A woman in a headscarf at a community center German course

Grobe thinks more immigrant women would like to take integration courses

Terre des Femmes' Grobe believes, however, that another reason may lie behind the poor attendance record of a large number of immigrants.

"We know of a very large number of women whose husbands won't allow them to go to integration courses - they simply don't want them to," she said.

Grobe believes the new, tougher attendance checks could make those men relent, allowing their wives to learn the German language and familiarize themselves with the country's educational system.

Author: Matt Hermann
Editor: Chuck Penfold

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