AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
When you think of girls or young women forced into marriage, you probably think of other countries, but forced marriages happen in America too. A recent national survey found thousands of cases where families in the U.S. forced their daughters to wed. Advocates say victims have little recourse. NPR's Jennifer Ludden reports.
JENNIFER LUDDEN, BYLINE: Lina was born in Yemen and brought to the U.S. as a toddler. She's in her early 20s, working retail at the mall to pay her way through college.
LINA: I was raised very, very Americanized. I did sports, I did community service, I worked. And people seeing that I was very, very strong often say, I never thought that this would ever happen to you.
LUDDEN: We're not using Lina's full name because she fears retribution from her family. A year ago, she says, her parents took her to Yemen claiming her grandmother was gravely ill. But once there, Lina's father announced she'd be getting married to a local man despite her objections.
LINA: I wasn't allowed out of the house longer than 10 minutes, and somebody always had their eye on me.
LUDDEN: She emailed the U.S. Embassy, but the State Department says its ability to help in such situations is limited. Lina went ahead with the wedding. She says she felt no choice after overhearing a chilling comment that family friends made to her parents.
LINA: The cost of a bullet is less than a dollar. And what they meant by that was my life, to these people, is very, very cheap.
LUDDEN: You mean they were threatening to kill you?
LAYLI MILLER-MURO: These are courageous women and girls who are facing extreme circumstances.
LUDDEN: Layli Miller-Muro heads the Tahirih Justice Center, a national nonprofit that provides legal help for immigrant women forced to marry.
MILLER-MURO: Some of our clients have threatened to commit suicide, have actually committed suicide, as their only way out. They've been beaten, they have been imprisoned in their own home, they've been starved.
LUDDEN: Miller-Muro says U.S. laws are not designed to deal with the complexities of forced marriage, especially if there's no pattern of past violence. Even state laws on the marriage age don't always help. She says most were written for Romeo and Juliet scenarios, and power lies with parents.
MILLER-MURO: They can go to the court and get a marriage certificate, indicate that they're waiving the minimum age requirement, and the court has no procedures in place to ensure that the child is wanting this. And so, we have seen this happen.
LUDDEN: Often parents consider marriage a matter of family pride and honor, a way to protect daughters and sometimes sons from Western ways. The Tahirih Justice Center has documented forced marriage in almost every U.S. state across cultures and religions.
FRAIDY REISS: People often ask me, when I tell them my story, where are you from - Iran? And I tell them, you know, I'm from Brooklyn.
LUDDEN: Fraidy Reiss grew up ultra-Orthodox Jewish. Her world was insular, she says. High school prepared her only for a life devoted to husband and children.
REISS: I actually had to sign a paper promising that I would not take the SATs or driver's ed.
LUDDEN: But after marrying at 19, Reiss did learn to drive and got a college degree, over objections from her controlling husband. That allowed her and her two children to leave after 12 years of what she describes as a verbally abusive and volatile marriage. Reiss now heads Unchained at Last and helps other women get out of marriages they were forced into.
REISS: Heartbreaking stories of women who call and say, I've been in this house, you know, for seven years since I was 16. I have two children. I haven't been allowed to leave the house. Please help me.
LUDDEN: Reiss would like the U.S. to do more, and she and others point to the United Kingdom. It has a national hotline and education campaign.
(SOUNDBITE OF PUBLIC SERVICE ANNOUNCEMENT)
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: If you're being forced to marry, support and advice is available to help you make it stop.
LUDDEN: A forced marriage unit can reach overseas to help extricate women from a coerced wedding. Last year, England and Wales also made forced marriage a crime punishable by up to seven years in prison. The Tahirih Justice Center worries that would discourage girls from seeking help, but the center's Archi Pyati would like the U.S. to adopt something else - a civil protection order specifically to protect girls from the pressure to marry.
ARCHI PYATI: A judge would hear testimony about the complex web of social, familial and other factors that are making her feel that she's trapped.
LUDDEN: Lina, the young woman who got married in Yemen, did manage to come back to the U.S. Despite fears for her safety, she wants more people like her to speak out. Jennifer Ludden, NPR News.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.