Youth Agency and the Culture of Law: A High School Curriculum on Forced Marriage
The topic of “forced" marriage has increasingly garnered international interest. In Apri 2014, it was the subject of the UNHRC and General Assembly. The Commonwealth devoted a roundtable discussion to the topic. In Canada, “forced" marriage was brought to national attention by an important study released by the South Asian Legal Clinic of Ontario.
For me, this phenomenon came to my attention when I volunteered to guest teach a high school class of at-risk teenagers. I arrived a bit early at the 11th grade Social Studies class, where I met the teacher who was clearly happy to see a student who had been absent for nearly three months. Excusing herself from our conversation to speak to the student, she soon returned looking stunned. She confided to me privately that this young man’s parents took him to Trinidad and Tobago to get married to a young woman who would later immigrate to Canada. What was especially upsetting to the teacher was that her student was struggling with whether to come out as gay. We both presumed his parents suspected this; they may have thought that marriage would perserve his heterosexuality.
Defining “forced" marriage is no easy matter, which is why it appears here in quotes. Some might argue that “forced” marriage occurs when someone is compelled to marry someone against his or her will. On this approach, “forced" marriage is distinguished from “arranged" marriage in that the latter is premised upon the marital parties freely choosing or consenting to marriage. In short, the most significant conceptual feature proffered of “forced" marriage is that the person getting married has not given his or her “consent".
As much as “consent" might be used as a litmus test, its usefulness begins to break down when we begin asking questions like: What does “consent” looks like? Who has the capacity to give consent? What forms does consent (or its absence) take? Is silence evidence of consent or its absence? How does the cultural context inform whether someone consents or not? Is it possible that others' contexts might make what “we” call "forced” marriage look more like “arranged” marriage, where they do not subjectively experience compulsion?
These questions reveal that when we use terms like “forced” marriage and “consent”, we often rely upon unstated but nonetheless universalizing presumptions about what counts as agency, autonomy, capacity, and consent. Revealing these assumptions as they take shape in Canadian law is among the goals of this curriculum project.
This curriculum is also offered in a historical moment when various countries have passed legislation criminalizing “forced" marriage, with the implication of sociologically criminalizing communities affiliated with that practice, in particular the South Asian community. Legislation certainly provides immediate satisfaction that something is being done. But it is a short-term measure that does little for long-term engagement with communities, cultures, and ideas.
This curriculum examines “forced" marriage by interrogating the law’s culture on youth agency and consent. It was designed for high school teachers situated in Ontario, Canada, and speaks directly to Ontario’s educational guidelines. However, it is hoped that this curriculum might inspire others to develop similar materials for their jurisdictions and improve upon this one.