Chimène, from Togo, and Rokia, from Guinea, met in a Belgian refugee centre. They fled their countries to escape forced marriages.
Obtaining asylum in Europe, they say, is a matter of life or death.
Rokia did not yet know that her request would come through only a few days later.
“When my dad died, I was married to a friend of his” she explains. “Because the man is a diamond dealer, he has lots of money, they sold me to him. I was the man’s third wife. I underwent FGM a first time when I was a child. And a second time when I was twelve. He wanted me to go through this a third time, I said no! Because I know the harmful effects of FGM. The man beat me up, he tortured me, even to make love with him, because I did not want him! He kept beating me. In my country, my life is in danger, because I disobeyed the family.”
Chimène’s story is also dismaying. Her boyfriend helped her escape from Togo before her family could force her to marry another man, twice her age. But harm was also done.
“I have a son, who’s 2 years and 3 months old; it would be difficult for me to go back home because his dad there wants to take him, and I don’t want that to happen. His life will be at risk if he goes back to our country,” she says.”
And she adds, unflinching:
“The father’s the man who wanted to marry me after he raped me”.
By speaking to us openly, Chimène and Rokia are taking a big risk.
But they want to testify to end the practice of which they were victims.
They were members of the cast in a play, shown that day in the city of Liege, at a seminar on the issue of forced marriages.
Belgium is one of the first EU countries to have specifically criminalized forced marriage.
But it is difficult to stem the phenomenon, says the coordinator of the Liège platform on forced marriages and honor-related violence.
“I have very very few victims who will file a complaint, or expect anything from the law.” she points out. “There are virtually no figures for forced marriages and honor-related violence because people don’t file complaints. They are afraid to hurt their families, they are afraid of having their parents sent to prison, to be responsible for the financial collapse of their families, to see their brother or sister put in foster care,” says Leila Slimani.
It was under family pressure that Amina agreed to a marriage arranged by the Imam of her Brussel’s neighbourhood’s mosque, with a total stranger, who was then living in Morocco.
As a Belgian citizen, Amina was his passport to Europe.
That was 20 years ago. She was able to divorce after years of proceedings, but the wound is not healed
“It follows you a very long time. It did not stop because he left. The man contracted debts. Also, his name was on the house, and I continued to pay this credit. I finally ended up with a lot of problems.” she says.
“Were you able to rebuild your life?” asks our reporter Valérie Gauriat.
“No. To be honest, I never married again, that’s clear. I believe a marriage is a marriage. Even if there are people who get married two or three times, it’s not the same anymore”, she whispers, in tears.
Halina Benmrah hears of stories like this every day.
She heads an association for victims of forced unions or marriages of convenience; too often, they do not know where to turn she says.
“Unfortunately, for most people who call, I would say it is too late, the marriage has already taken place. On paper, there are many things available. But in practice, there is nothing for the victims, nothing, at all, I’m sorry. Nothing. And sometimes, I can also say, the person is not even aware, does not even know where to get information,” says Halina.
Professionals from different fields are nonetheless trying to develop ways to tackle the issue. Anne-Sophie Vallot is a police chief inspector in Brussels, specialised in youth and family affairs.
She is often called by the associations when forced marriage victims are in crisis situations.
Like that day, at The Voice of Women association.
Maria Miguel-Sierra, the head of the association, tells Anne-Sophie of a call she just had that morning, from a young woman fearing to be sent abroad within days, to be forcefully married.
“I’ll try to see if I can meet her face to face. Because she did not want to leave her phone number, nothing at all. She really wasn’t well at all,” explains Maria ..
“We did our own research, and yes, there have been complaints previously,” confirms Anne-Sophie.
“She really needs psychological help,” suggests Maria.
Anne-Sophie follows on to tell us:
“We, at the police level, mainly see the victims in cases of intra-family violence. And there we see that very often there is a forced marriage behind the situation. At the start, there’s a forced marriage, and we can see the consequences of that.
We see the consequences, which are rape, repeated rapes with violence, serious violence, extreme violence!And finally, only when the girl can’t take it any more, and it’s a matter of life or death, she knocks at the door of the police, seeking help,” says Anne Sophie.
The Voice of Women and some 15 other Brussels associations have organized a network to coordinate and develop their approaches.
An emergency call number has been set up for victims of forced marriages. The associations also want to increase awareness among professionals and the public, especially in the most affected communities.
“Belgium is a country that welcomes, often through family reunification, new migration flows. So it’s not surprising to see that when girls arrive in the country at a very young age, a few years later, the issue of marriage will arise.” points out Maria Miguel-Sierra. “People come with a set of values, with a vision of what the family should be. Such views do not change overnight.”
A matter of time, but also of prevention, especially among those youths at risk of being exposed to forced marriages, which sometimes lead to tragedy.
Informing them can also help them break the silence.
“My advice to the girls, would be to dare talk about it” concludes Amina. To go knock on a door .. No matter who, whether a friend, whether a neighbor, whether in school, whatever. But they must speak out.”