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Uncovering the problem of forced marriage in the U.S.

September 14, 2016 at 6:30 PM EDT
She was never verbally or physically threatened or restrained. But at age 19, Nina Van Harn felt like she couldn’t say no when she was expected to marry a man chosen by her family. And she is not alone in her experience. In a two-year period, it’s estimated that there were 3,000 such forced marriage cases in the United States. Special correspondent Gayle Tzemach Lemmon reports.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But, first: Today on Capitol Hill, a Senate hearing looked into ending the practice overseas of child marriage. But what wasn’t examined thousands of American girls and women here in the United States who are forced into marriage every year.

In the first of two parts, special correspondent Gayle Tzemach Lemmon reports.

GAYLE TZEMACH LEMMON: For Nina Van Harn, raising her children today is a radical departure from her own upbringing.

NINA VAN HARN, Married at 19: My childhood was part magical, and part complicated.

GAYLE TZEMACH LEMMON: She was raised in rural Michigan on a 40-acre farm in a tight-knit community that practiced a conservative form of evangelical Christianity. Its members largely kept to themselves, more “Little House on the Prairie” than modern-day America.

Growing up, she always knew one day was coming. She recorded its arrival in her diary.

>Watch part two of this report.

NINA VAN HARN: “Dear Kit (ph)” — that was the name of the girl in the journal — “You will never guess what happened today. This morning after breakfast, papa sat Naomi (ph) and I down at the kitchen table and nailed us both with a load of bricks. He believes he found husbands for both of us.”

GAYLE TZEMACH LEMMON: Van Harn had turned 19. She was legally an adult. There was no gun to her head, no chains around her wrists. But because of lifelong pressures from her family and her upbringing, she considers herself one of thousands of American women and girls forced into marriage each year.

NINA VAN HARN: I knew that I wasn’t going to say no. This was God’s will. God had spoken. And it was just not even an option. I didn’t think consciously in my head I’m being forced.

CRISTINA BICCHIERI, University of Pennsylvania: This is part of, if you will, psychological manipulation.

GAYLE TZEMACH LEMMON: Cristina Bicchieri is a professor of philosophy and psychology at the University of Pennsylvania whose work focuses on social norms.

She says these marriage practices are more typical of close-knit, conservative communities, people with little contact to the outside world.

CRISTINA BICCHIERI: Your choices are much more restricted, and also it is the case that even if the girl or the boy give their consent, it is force in the sense that only they don’t know or conceive of an alternative, but it is a terrifying thing to abandon their community. It’s scary. Where do they go? Whom do they talk to?

GAYLE TZEMACH LEMMON: For Nina Van Harn, there was no one and nowhere to go. And then it was her wedding day.

NINA VAN HARN: I do remember being very nervous, and yet knowing that I needed to be smiling, and I was supposed to be happy. And I just looked in the mirror and I thought, this is it.

GAYLE TZEMACH LEMMON: Nina’s husband wasn’t physically abusive, but throughout over a decade marriage, she says that she suffered psychological abuse, under severe pressure from her family and community. Every household chore, every meal she cooked, every family visit, even sexual interaction, she said, came to feel like imprisonment.

NINA VAN HARN: When you don’t consent willingly to be with someone, then acquiesce their requests, it doesn’t make it a yes. It makes it, hey, I want to survive today.

GAYLE TZEMACH LEMMON: An attorney for her husband after an initial response to “PBS NewsHour” didn’t respond to further inquiries, and her father didn’t respond to multiple contact attempts.

Numbers are hard to come by. But one recent study by a group that works against forced marriage found as many 3,000 cases in a two-year period. Legally, marriage is between two adults, age 18 years or older.

But every state in the country allows for exceptions. Critics say these exceptions endanger young people, not help them.

Advocates say children as young as 12 have been married with the consent of their parents, according to state data. Ten states also allow underage girls to be married if they become pregnant. But critics point out that those laws may actually be used to legitimize other crimes, such as rape.

In a first-of-its-kind lawsuit, Nina Van Harn decided to sue the state of Michigan for an annulment on the grounds that her marriage wasn’t consensual, and was, in fact, based on compulsion.

With no legal precedent in the matter, she had to build the case from scratch. She left her husband and moved to a nearby city, where she now lives a much less conservative lifestyle.

The rest of her family ceased all contact. And she and her former spouse share joint custody of their three children. The case, she said, took on a deep personal significance.

NINA VAN HARN: I felt just a sense that I was going to actually not only get away from him, but I was going to get free.

GAYLE TZEMACH LEMMON: That’s what an annulment meant to you?

NINA VAN HARN: Uh-huh. It meant freedom. And it meant a peace in my conscience.

GAYLE TZEMACH LEMMON: When you look at these pictures, what goes through your mind?

FRAIDY REISS, Married at 19: It’s like looking at a different person. It’s like looking at a stranger.

GAYLE TZEMACH LEMMON: Fraidy Reiss felt similar pressures in a very different place. She grew up in an ultra-orthodox Jewish family in Brooklyn, and she says that the pressure she faced to get married was obvious.

Even though she was legally an adult, 19 years old, she said felt she had no choice.

FRAIDY REISS: You have never been on a date before. And your whole life, you have been told, you need to get married right away. You’re terrified.

GAYLE TZEMACH LEMMON: Reiss Reiss was arranged to marry a man whom she’d barely met. She remembers the ceremony as a joyous time, but she says her marriage took a turn for the worse.

FRAIDY REISS: He would describe to me how he was going to kill me.


FRAIDY REISS: In detail. He would describe to me in detail until my — he would explain how I was going to take my last breath.

GAYLE TZEMACH LEMMON: The threats prompted Reiss to seek a restraining order in a New Jersey state court, which was granted in 2010, and remains in force.

Divorce is considered sinful in Reiss’ community, and family and friends offered little sympathy. On her own, she decided to take action.

FRAIDY REISS: My first plan was, I’m just going to get out of this marriage, and then it became, I’m going to get out of this entire situation.

GAYLE TZEMACH LEMMON: Reiss left the community, and set out for what she considered the unknown. Her family felt so betrayed, in fact, that they cut off all contact.

Professor Bicchieri says Reiss’ decision to leave puts her in a rare category.

CRISTINA BICCHIERI: Let’s call this woman a trendsetter. It will show to other women — or it may not be a woman — can be a man, et cetera — that it is possible to act against the norm of the community, is an example. They have more propensity to risk. They are more autonomous.

And another important element is that they must believe that their rebelling in some sense will be efficacious, that they will succeed.

GAYLE TZEMACH LEMMON: Reiss moved to New Jersey with her two daughters. Her ex-husband retains some visitation rights to the girls.

Reiss started a nonprofit called Unchained at Last that lobbies to enact tighter legislation addressing forced marriage across the United States.

FRAIDY REISS: When people hear about this, they say, oh, well, that’s just happening in this one religion, or that’s just happening in this one immigrant community.

And that’s a way to abdicate responsibility. It’s so important to raise awareness about this and to talk about this publicly, because you can’t solve a problem that nobody knows exists.

GAYLE TZEMACH LEMMON: Back in Michigan, Nina Van Harn and her lawyer, Matt Burns, pushed ahead with their legal battle. The challenges, they say, are not just legal, but cultural.

MATTHEW BURNS, Attorney: The goal isn’t to eradicate arranged marriage. In many cultures, that is the norm, and it’s accepted, and — but there’s, I think, a fine line and probably a fair gray area between what’s arranged and what’s forced. And so that’s, I think, another difficulty that we face here.

GAYLE TZEMACH LEMMON: While not confronted with physical abuse, Van Harn overcame great psychological hurdles in building her case.

NINA VAN HARN: When I walked out, I didn’t just walk out on this person. I walked out of my whole family. I walked out of my community. I walked out on many parts of what had been my faith.

And I had to run very fast. And that was heart-wrenching thing to do. But I did it because staying was more frightening than leaving.

GAYLE TZEMACH LEMMON: Now she hopes that this case will help other women from all backgrounds escape similar situations.

Meanwhile, she has a steady job in human resources at an auto dealer. She leads an active, busy family. And she has built a new group of friends, many of whom she met at a support group sponsored by a local women’s shelter.

NINA VAN HARN: It’s a community. We are a community that works together to help each other through life. We are, in some ways, co-parents. And that’s my family. And they mean everything to me.

GAYLE TZEMACH LEMMON: On August 1, Nina Van Harn’s husband agreed to annul their marriage. The end of this case, she hopes, also will mark a whole new a beginning for her.

For the “PBS NewsHour,” I’m Gayle Tzemach Lemmon in Michigan.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Tomorrow, part two of our series, looking at American girls taken overseas and forced into marriage.

And, online, Gayle Tzemach Lemmon describes how she was able to persuade her subjects to come forward. That’s on our Web site,