The story of Saman Abbas brought the topics of arranged and forced marriage in Italy to the spotlight. An 18-year old with Pakistani origins, Saman disappeared after refusing an arranged marriage. Investigators believe she was murdered by the uncle, while his parents fled to Pakistan.
While the police keep looking and searching, Saman’s story reflects a reality that many Italians ignore. It’s the reality of forced marriages, child brides, and disappearances. And it’s a world that touches mainly immigrant communities, but not only.
The story of the young Pakistani girl also brought attention to the inadequacy of the Italian law. The topic of forced marriages in the country might be silent. However that doesn’t justify the law protecting the girls. And from doing more, starting with acknowledging and researching the issue of forced marriages in Italy.
Forced vs arranged: it’s different
The law distinguishes between arranged and forced marriages, which is not only a linguistic difference. In fact, an arranged marriage isn’t achieved through threats or violence. Instead, the parents pair daughter and son. As the tradition evolved, the two people involved could choose each other. The last step is the family’s consent.
On the other hand, a forced marriage means that the parents threaten or abuse the woman, forcing her into a marriage that she doesn’t want. Just like Saman Abbas, who didn’t want to marry anyone. She had a boyfriend and she just wanted to live.
Through the legal glass
Italy introduced the law against forced marriages in 2019. It targets marriage by constriction or induction. Anyone forcing a person to marry faces up to five years in jail. If the person is a minor, the aggravating factor is an additional two to seven years.
This holds true even if forced marriage happens outside of Italy towards an Italian citizen. Or if the person isn’t Italian but lives in the country. Hence, being a legal citizen does not cancel the legal responsibility. If someone is Italian but leaves outside of the country, the law stands. And if someone isn’t Italian but lives in the country, the law stands. And it protects both Italian and immigrant victims.
So, the law acknowledges that forced marriages in Italy also happen in Italian communities. While this is a positive and necessary clarification, the authorities didn’t take into consideration a detail. In fact, the prosecution of this crime doesn’t stop if the victim retracts. Investigations continue, no matter what the person wants.
And most victims of forced marriage in Italy are afraid to speak up. Reporting the crime means reporting the family and perhaps an entire community. At the end of the investigation, the victim might be alone. Perhaps loneliness hurts more than forced marriage.
This undeniable difficulty makes the research on this crime scarce and vague.
Forced marriage in Italy by the numbers
There is no national-wide research on the topic. In fact, the only study out there is the 2014 commissioned by the European Commission. Titled Forced Marriage in Italy: a qualitative research, this report dates back to 2014. And still, this research linked back to the data that UNICEF gathered in 2013. This research focused on geographical areas and nationalities.
According to the study, people from South East Asia are the most likely to have forced marriages. The majority of minors are from Bangladesh, since 32% of girls under 18 are victims of this crime. On the other hand, the nationality with the most forced marriages of girls above 18 is Bangladesh (75%). Pakistan, the native country of Saman, is on the UNICEF list. In Italy, 24% of Pakistan minors and 7% of girls above 18 had to marry against their will.
Still, no matter the nationality, women don’t report this crime. In fact, one year after the country passed the law on forced marriages, only 32 cases had been reported. And none of them had legal consequences.
A form of violence
“Forced marriage should be seen as violence against women, this way girls will know that these constraints are recognizes as violence,” said Alessandra Davide, the President of the Anti-Violence Center in Trama di Terre to Today. Sometimes, forced marriage leads just to that: violence.
She was abused and tortured. At 13-years old, she had already lived too much. She was originally from Macedonia, where her family sold her for euro 3,000. Her parents sold her to a 17-year old boy and his mother. They brought her to Venice, while waiting to enact the forced marriage. Alone and scared, she was abused and tortured, even harder after she tried fleeing.
Until the neighbors reported to the police a child with bruises. Investigators came and arrested both the mother and the boy. A story of brutality that could have had a worse ending. While this girl has wounds that might take forever to heal, she survived. Others, like Saman Abbas, can’t say the same.
Why? Because there is a lack of support for those leaving their families. The victims need a safe network to build their life and to stay, if the crime ever gets to court. No one needs another Saman Abbas.
Too often, discrimination can lead to aggression, not only for immigrants.