A high school curriculum tool, Youth Agency and the Culture of Law, will teach Ontario students their legal rights, so they can stand up against forced marriage

JD/MSW student Persia Etemadi and alumna Nav K. Singh

JD/MSW student Persia Etemadi and alumna
Nav K. Singh: what does it mean for students to be
a rights-holder?

By Cynthia Macdonald / Photography by Hasnain Dattu

From the Spring/Summer 2015 issue of Nexus

Some six years ago, Professor Anver M. Emon walked into a downtown Toronto high school expecting to teach a class. But he was the one who ended up learning.

A noted expert on Sharia law, Emon was invited there to speak about the novel The Kite Runner in his capacity as a volunteer with the Law in Action Within Schools (LAWS) program. When he arrived, however, he noticed something wrong: the class’s teacher seemed “stunned.”

She told him that one of her students had re-appeared that day after a three-month absence. “He went and got married in Trinidad and Tobago,” says Emon, “which surprised the teacher, because to her understanding, he was starting to come out as gay.”

Emon soon learned that this was not an isolated incident: stories of other Canadian teenagers being taken, often by family, and unwillingly married, for a variety of reasons, came to his attention. Realizing how powerless and uninformed such students were, he decided to reach out to them.

So began his work on Youth Agency and the Culture of Law, a curriculum project set to hit Ontario schools in the fall of 2015 as an optional tool for teachers. Designed for use in law and social studies classes, it contains resources designed to (in Emon’s words) “get students thinking: about what it means to be part of a family, what it means to be a citizen, what it means to be a rights-holder when the law does not see them as so.” 

In addition to topics of potential interest to all students—such as guardianship, age of majority and consent laws regarding such issues as medical treatment—the project touches most pointedly on forced marriage, coupled with emancipation.

The Canada Research Chair in Religion, Pluralism and the Rule of Law, and a 2014/15 Guggenheim fellow, Emon sought and secured funding from a variety of institutions interested in this topic; in addition to the Faculty of Law, these included the Department of Justice (Canada) and the Factor-Inwentash Faculty of Social Work. Education on forced marriage "is the kind of issue our faculty should be sponsoring," says Factor-Inwentash Dean Faye Mishna, "because it's very complex and easy to stereotype. It fits with the idea we have in social work that such things have to be understood in a nuanced way."

LAWS, founded at U of T Law and now run in partnership with Osgoode Hall Law School, was also an important partner from the start. “For some kids forced marriage will be a live issue, and for others it won’t,” says Sarah Pole, director of LAWS. Pole says the curriculum jibes perfectly with the program's mandate to provide legal education, outreach and mentorship to help high school students understand the law and how it affects them. In the 10 years since its inception, LAWS has seen proof that “kids take home the legal concepts they learn about at school, to translate them for their families. After we educate one person, the knowledge spreads.”

That said, knowledge about forced marriage is hard to come by. Fearing violence and expulsion from their families, victims are reluctant to talk. But a 2013 report conducted by the South Asian Legal Clinic of Ontario found 219 confirmed or suspected cases in Ontario and Quebec in a two-year period. Most, but not all, of those forced into marriage are female. The practice cuts across religious and cultural lines, and is considered a rising global problem.

In recent years, a handful of countries have enacted legislation specifically targeting forced marriage. Under the federal government’s Bill S-7, Canada is set to be next. Passed in June, some say it is unnecessary in that it criminalizes acts that are already against the law (such as kidnapping, coercion and assault).

But the laws already in place have not done anything to eradicate forced marriage, and many wonder whether new ones will prove any more effective. Internationally, new legislation has not raised the rate of prosecutions to any appreciable degree.

Emon says that may be because a teenager forced into marriage stands to lose much if he or she presses charges. “Many might say, ‘Why didn’t you just say no?’ But in some contexts, to say no is to exit the family. Your entire support network is lost. And the question then is, does the law help alleviate the cost? Does it have the capacity to step in when one of these kids loses everything?”

Which is why education—instead of more legislation—is viewed by some as a more desirable solution. Persia Etemadi has just completed her third year of U of T’s combined JD/MSW program. As the curriculum’s principal drafter, she and the team spoke with front-line service providers such as teachers and social workers to ensure that it was sensitive and effective from their point of view.

“We wanted to make it child-friendly, to use real cases and involve things that were happening in the media,” she says. “We also included a graphic novel on forced marriage, produced by the South Asian Legal Clinic.” Although the curriculum is mainly designed for schools, Etemadi stresses it could also be used by social agencies. It has now been translated into four languages besides English. 

An important point was to make the distinction between “forced” and “arranged” marriages. “An arranged marriage might be to someone you don’t know, but it’s a process that you willingly involve yourself in,” Etemadi says. “In a forced marriage, there’s no consent. But consent with youth is a really tricky topic: you might say yes, but not actually be consenting. The clearest instances of forced marriage are ones that involve emotional, physical, sexual abuse or threats.”

The team found teachers were enthusiastic about the graphic novel component, she continues, but were wary of giving students the message that forced marriage is a uniquely South Asian problem. “So we came across the Maclean’s article, and put it in there.”

The January 2015 article she is referring to, “Against their will: Inside Canada’s forced marriages,” details several different instances of forced marriage in Canada. Subjects include a Mexican transgender woman, as well as two former members of Christian communities. It clearly demonstrates that forced marriage is not endemic to one group or another.

And yet, many charge that Bill S-7 gives precisely the opposite message. The bill’s title, the Zero Tolerance for Barbaric Cultural Practices Act,would seem to target some immigrant communities, while ignoring others.

Emon questions why Bill S-7’s main ministerial supporter is immigration minister Chris Alexander, instead of the minister of justice. “When you take that name,” says Emon, “and you place it within the bailiwick of the Ministry of Immigration, what you’re signaling is that this is a ‘foreign issue’. And by invoking the language of barbarism, you’re implicitly invoking nineteenth-century notions of the white man’s burden and colonial discourse.”

But Nav K. Singh, JD 2000, strongly endorses the bill’s contents, if not its inflammatory name: she stresses, however, that the name is not merely an invention of the Harper government. "South Asian women who are anti-violence activists and have worked in the field for decades have actually been calling for this particular name, because it speaks to their experience," she says.

Singh's practice in west-end Toronto and Peel region is strongly oriented toward social justice, with a focus on human rights, family and employment law. She is actively involved in trying to prevent the harmful effects of forced marriage, and believes criminalization of the practice will send a strong message, not only to her own Punjabi Sikh community, but also to many other afflicted individuals and communities.

When legislation has been passed against forced marriage (in Norway and the UK, for example), only a handful of prosecutions have resulted. But that's not the point, says Singh. "The aim is prevention," she says. "The hope is that people will not do it, because they fear prosecution.” Furthermore, Singh points out that legislation often leads to serious allocation of resources to help implement the law, when the focus should actually be on preventative social programming.

While Singh affirms that forced marriage is a cross-community problem, she still believes training in a cultural context is important. "In situations of domestic abuse, law enforcement officers might show up and say ‘Oh, it's an arranged marriage; we're not even going to bother charging them because the women will just stay no matter what.’ But the women don't want to say they've been forced. So police have to be more aware; to ask the right questions, and not just dismiss abuse because it's happening in a particular community."

As much educator as she is lawyer, Singh applauds the idea of informing teenagers on the subject. But she stresses that adult education is even more important. "Parents need to be told not to do this to their children," she says. "We need to start looking more at families; that's where the change needs to happen."

Front-line worker Aruna Papp believes more legislation will have a preventative effect, but is only a first step. The educator, human rights activist, author and speaker came to Canada from India in 1972, with the equivalent of a third-grade education and two small children. Trapped in a forced, abusive marriage to a man nine years her senior, she broke free when her children were teenagers. Once she had decided to leave the marriage, her husband burned all her books—her most prized possessions—before she could take them with her.

She thinks it’s critical that safe haven be provided for girls and boys who do manage to escape. “You take teenagers who have lived in a very secure, tight environment,” she says, “and the police put them in foster homes or group homes. They smoke, have a beer, go to the movies, date. But it’s like going from the frying pan into the fire: they have freedom, but no guidance. And they cannot go back into the community that they have left.”

That’s why Allan Hux, a retired teacher and curriculum expert who advised on the Youth Agency project, believes that what could potentially occur after class is just as important as what happens within it. “We want teachers and guidance counsellors to have the tools and resources to help students if they need it,” he says.

With 35 years of teaching experience, Hux knows that teaching sensitive issues within the classroom can spark conflict with parents: he cites the recent furor over Ontario’s health education curriculum, as well as a controversial course on genocide, as two previous flashpoints. Teaching about forced marriage—and about youth agency in general—could be another one.

“In the early 2000s, the [Toronto] board created a policy about teaching such issues so it didn’t get caught off guard,” he says. The policy, Teaching Controversial and Sensitive Issues, advises teachers about conflict resolution, and ensures that any materials are steered toward the attainment of established pedagogical goals.

When Persia Etemadi embarked on her studies in law and social work, she may not have realized she'd be entering the world of youth education as well. But that, she says, has been one of the great gifts of her combined program. "I love this project, and I love being able to bring different groups together to target a social issue," she says. "I could certainly see myself doing policy or advocacy work down the road."

She also relishes the chance to get students thinking for themselves about what words like “marriage” mean in world that’s always changing.

“We want them to talk,” says Emon. “We want to create an environment where they can share their views, but also explore the different relationships we all have – whether to the state, to family or to each other. And the demands those relationships make on us.”

Demands that, while challenging, should never—in any legal or social sense—cause outright harm. 


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