Are forced marriages a major issue in the United States — even here in Maryland? The problem might not get a lot of attention, but it is bigger than most people realize.

In fact, there is growing concern over forced marriages, including in the Baltimore-Washington area. A recent survey conducted by a national nonprofit organization, Tahirih Justice Center, which has offices in Virginia, Maryland and Texas, found about 3,000 known and suspected cases of forced marriages in the in the last two years nationwide.

Although forced marriages are known to take place in some immigrant communities, the U.S. government has, so far, not taken steps to recognize and address the problem. "In fact, there is no central authority in the U.S. to report to or track cases of forced marriages within the country or those forcibly taken out to be married off," says Razan Fayez, managing family law attorney with Tahirih, which helps protect immigrant women and girls fleeing gender-based violence.

Julia Alanen, co-founder of Global Justice Initiative, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit, and director of the organization's forced marriage initiative, says advocates across the U.S. are "hearing increasingly more reports from advocates across the United States of teen girls fleeing their parents' homes for domestic violence shelters in order to escape being forced into marriage, often to significantly older men."

Forced marriage is defined as marriage performed under threat or coercion and without the consent of one or both parties. Such threat or coercion can include fraud, extreme verbal, emotional and mental abuse, humiliation, denigration, physical force and abuse. It can also include forcing someone to continue a marriage to which they no longer consent, says Jeanne Smoot, director of public policy with Tahirih.

Attorney Christopher Nugent points out that women fleeing to the U.S. to escape forced marriages in their home countries have been granted asylum, but nothing protects U.S. citizens and legal residents forcibly taken from the country to be married. He notes, "There is also no law that can be used to enable minor girls and women, even if legally living in the U.S., who may not be citizens or permanent residents, to remain here to avoid being taken to their home countries and forcibly married."

As Ms. Alanen points out, "Forced marriage can involve elements of domestic violence, parental kidnapping, child abuse and even human trafficking insofar as the bride is treated as chattel and sold into marriage in exchange for something of value. Forced marriage cases implicate conflicting rights, for example, a group's right to preserve its cultural traditions and practices versus the right of every individual to be free from domestic violence, rape and trafficking and the right to choose freely whether to marry, when to warry and who to marry."

Despite the general belief that the practice among some immigrant communities is exclusively cultural or religious, there are other interests beyond tradition and control of women's sexuality that drive it. These factors can include economic, social support and family-reunification issues.

Under the current U.S. immigration law, there is no minimum age for spousal sponsorship. According to Ms. Smoot, if the petitioner (or the overseas bride or groom) is below the age of consent for marriage in the state in which the couple intends to reside, she or he is required to produce documentation to show that the requirements for an exception to the minimum age have been met. In some states, parents' consent to underage marriage is sufficient. But parental consent may conceal a girl's lack of consent to a marriage.

The U.S. system is ill-equipped to deal with the problem of forced marriages because courts and child protective service agencies lack guidelines such as those used in Great Britain. Such institutions tend to look for evidence of physical or sexual abuse before taking action.

In some cases, the social service agency may be reluctant to act for fear it may be viewed as interfering in cultural or religious matters. But, as Razan Fayez points out, there is a need to protect the girls because "forced marriage is threatened harm; it meets the requirement of physical injury or threat of injury necessary to get a protective order; forced sex is rape and threat of bodily injury. It is a violation of women's rights."

The impact of forced marriage on victims is devastating. They often experience emotional and physical violence, torture, verbal abuse, repeated rapes, sexually transmitted diseases, HIV/AIDS, forced pregnancy, abortions, kidnapping/abduction, isolation, false imprisonment and slavery — not to mention honor killing and murder. Forced marriage is psychologically debilitating, making the victims feel powerless. Forced early marriage also denies young girls the right to education and opportunities in life.

As Ms. Alanen rightly points out, "Anti-forced-marriage instruments typically draw a bright line between respecting a cultural group's right to perpetuate the practice of arranged (mutually consensual) marriages and forced (nonconsensual) marriages; in reality, that line is easily blurred."

Immediate steps need to be taken to eliminate this pernicious practice. Some initiatives that could help, to begin with, are effective legislation and guidelines to various agencies that may deal with complaints and actual cases — such as the police, judiciary and service providers in the social, health and education sectors. Setting up a separate unit of the U.S. Justice Department, similar to the Forced Marriage Unit in Britain, to implement policies and act as a watchdog would be greatly helpful. Such a unit should assist victims with their needs and train service providers to recognize and report actual and suspected cases.

Perhaps most important, we need to bring forced marriage out of the shadows, raising awareness in local communities that this is a serious violation of human rights that causes lasting damage to its victims.

Saroj Iyer is a journalist and attorney in Washington, D.C. Her email is s_i2000@yahoo.com.

Editor's note: An earlier version of this article misidentified the organization that employs one of the sources quoted, Julia Alanen. That earlier version also omitted quotation marks from Ms. Alanen's comments, giving the impression that the lines were paraphrases rather than direct quotes. The Baltimore Sun regrets these errors.