Forced marriage is sex trafficking. By ignoring forced marriage in our policy discussions about sex trafficking, we are leaving thousands of vulnerable girls and women behind. Forced marriage happens within insular religious communities every single day. Our legislation, policy-making and funding must support the lives of women and girls in religious communities who are at most risk of forced marriage.
Whenever I tell someone that I’ve escaped sex trafficking, they assume it happened while I was traveling solo in a foreign country. Was it in Colombia? I heard Colombia is very dangerous! Did it happen in Trinidad & Tobago? I heard Trinidad isn’t safe for solo female travelers! No, actually, this happened in the home. Their shock and horror becomes palpable. I was nearly sex trafficked by my family through forced marriage. I’m not supposed to talk about it openly because it’s always been a family secret. When I was 17-years old, my mother, aunt and grandmother attempted to force me into marriage to a man I had never seen before. I didn’t have a bank account, a job or health insurance. I locked myself in my room and cried. How was I going to escape this hell with no money, cellphone, or transportation?
How could I be so unlucky? All of my friends are going away to college, traveling abroad and interning. Why do I have to fight for my life? The assumption that sex trafficking only happens in foreign hotels, gas station bathrooms, train stations and concerts undermines the lived experiences of women like myself. For a long time, I didn’t know that I had escaped sex trafficking. Because of my internalized misogyny, I believed I was “better” than the girls on the streets who were sex trafficked by adult men. When in reality, I am no different than the girls who are forced to live on the streets.
Escaping was not easy at all. I packed everything and left in the middle of the night. I quit my job because they knew where I worked. I feared honor violence. I survived 6 months without health insurance. I made enormous sacrifices to live my life without fear of violence and forced marriage. Fortunately, I am a US citizen. I am grateful for the opportunity to further my education, travel solo, fight for women’s liberation and access reproductive healthcare. I am very fortunate to have escaped sex trafficking.
Forced marriage is legal in the US. With the exception of Delaware and New Jersey, forced marriage of underage girls is legal. The minimum legal marriage should be 18. However, due to institutionalized religious oppression, the rights of young girls remain in peril. We need to tackle these issues by addressing them as such: sex trafficking and gender-based violence.
Today, I am fighting on behalf of my 17-year old self and countless others.