No love story, as coronavirus woes drive some ethnic minority families in Hong Kong to marry off teen girls

A research showed it was common for Pakistani children to be engaged early, with girls typically engaged or encouraged to marry by the age of 14 or 15.
PHOTO: Pexels

Late one night in June, social worker Yu Miu-po received a text message from a 16-year-old girl who left Hong Kong for Pakistan in March with her parents and siblings, when Covid-19 infections were severe.

Born and raised in Hong Kong, she complained that her father was forcing her and her 14-year-old sister to get married and had picked two of his nephews as their bridegrooms.

She said she did not want to marry someone three years older, whom she barely knew, but had no choice.

“They think I’m too spoiled because I was born in Hong Kong and grew up there,” she said in one message.

Confined at home, she said her resistance led to quarrels with her father and even physical abuse.

“I’m traumatised. I’ve given up,” she said, as the family went ahead with marriage preparations for both girls. “We can’t change it, it’s our fate.”

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Yu was shocked that the girl, who was in Form Two and a top student in her class, had been made to stop school in Hong Kong along with her younger sister, to get married.

He knew the family of four girls and a boy, as he had helped them for eight years before they left. They lived in a public rental flat and got by on government welfare allowances.

Yu says the teenage sisters are not the only cases of forced marriage he has come across among Hong Kong’s ethnic minority groups.

Over 10 years of working with needy families, he says some girls aged 15 or 16 from low-income ethnic minority families suddenly leave Hong Kong, only to return half a year later, married.

“The issue has long existed, but the pandemic has made it more serious,” he says.

The minimum age for marriage in Hong Kong is 16, but there is no specific law to prevent forced marriage.
PHOTO: Pexels

Other social workers and NGOs agree that forced marriages are not new among ethnic minority groups, especially South Asians, but when Covid-19 disrupted schools and some breadwinners lost their jobs, more families began arranging early marriages for their children to ease the financial pressure of keeping them at home.

According to the United Nations, child marriage refers to any union in which at least one party is under 18. Forced marriages are those in which either or both parties have not given their full and free consent. Child marriages are considered a form of forced marriage.

The minimum age for marriage in Hong Kong is 16, and lawyers say there is no specific law concerning forced marriage. However, those who are assaulted or intimidated into marrying may find legal recourse, they say.

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Hong Kong has more than 584,000 people belonging to ethnic minority groups, accounting for eight per cent of the population, according to a 2016 population by-census. South Asians, including Indians, Nepalese, and Pakistanis, account for 14.5 per cent of all ethnic minority groups.

The Zubin Foundation, a think tank and charity dedicated to improving the lives of the city’s marginalised ethnic minority members, received three hotline calls over the past six months from women complaining about forced marriage.

Shalini Mahtani from the Zubin Foundation says the coronavirus pandemic led to some girls being married off early as their fathers had to stop working.
PHOTO: South China Morning Post

Shalini Mahtani, the charity’s founder and chief executive officer, says there were two such cases last year.

All three callers this year were of Pakistani origin from low-income families. Although now aged 18 or slightly above, they were engaged earlier.

“They kept delaying their marriages because they wanted to finish their education,” says Mahtani, who lent the young brides a listening ear and referred one to a shelter.

She says the pandemic led to some girls being married off this year after their fathers had to stop working.

“The families do not want to deal with the financial pressure of keeping their girls at home,” she says.

In a report this month, Britain-based charity Save the Children said an estimated 500,000 more girls risked being forced into child marriage worldwide as a result of the economic impacts of the pandemic. Earlier, it anticipated that 12 million girls would be forced into marriage this year.

Girls in South Asia were disproportionately at risk of increased child marriage, followed by those in West and Central Africa, Latin America, and the Caribbean. Girls in East Asia and the Pacific, Europe and Central Asia, and the Middle East and North Africa also faced increased risks.

‘Forced marriages are wrong’

Hina Butt, 30, a third-generation Hongkonger of Pakistani origin, still gets emotional recalling how she fought her father’s attempt to make her marry a cousin on her mother’s side six years ago.

The curriculum officer in the faculty of education at the University of Hong Kong (HKU) has two brothers and a sister and says that unlike many other parents who prized their boys, her parents always treated their daughters and sons equally.

But when she was 24 and was pursuing a master’s degree in Chinese education at HKU, her father came to her one day and said he had arranged for her to marry a cousin in Pakistan.

She was shocked and not prepared for marriage, and barely knew her cousin who was slightly older. Knowing that women received scant respect in his family also repulsed her, she adds.

When she could not persuade her father to drop the idea, she took off in 2016 to teach English in Zhuhai, in Guangdong.

She struggled afterwards to make sense of what happened, she says.

“My dad was open-minded and understanding and always supported me. How could he suddenly treat me like this? Forced marriages are wrong,” she says.

She recalls being overwhelmed by a sense of guilt, blaming herself for hurting her relationship with her father and for not handling the matter better.

Hina Butt with her father Ahmed Raheel at Hung Shui Kui.
PHOTO: South China Morning Post

At her lowest point, she attempted suicide by swallowing sleeping pills, but was rescued by a colleague and sent to hospital. When that happened, her father finally agreed to let her decide who to marry herself.

Her father, Ahmed Raheel, a consultant at a secondary school, says he was only trying to do his best for his daughter when he asked her to marry someone close to the family.

Ahmed was five when he came to Hong Kong with his family. He was 27 when his father decided he should marry a cousin in Pakistan. He was unwilling at first, but gave in when his father threatened to cut all ties with him.

Despite being forced to marry, Ahmed  says he and his wife, both 59, have had a long marriage and established a good family.

“I went through a similar path and it worked out. I wished the same good life for my daughter,” he says.

There was a happy ending for his daughter, who got married earlier this year to a 29-year-old Moroccan she met on her own. She says she loves her husband, and they are expecting a baby.

‘Parents decide, children go along’

Mufti Muhammad Arshad, the Pakistan-born chief imam of Hong Kong, acknowledges cases of forced marriage within the Pakistani community, but says they are not many and occur mostly among lowly educated families originally from villages in his native country.

The cleric says forced marriages are not acceptable in Islam. “I always advise the community to arrange marriages according to the wishes of their children as our religion teaches us,” he says.

The practice of forced marriage affects not only girls, but also boys and young men made to take brides picked by their parents.

In most cases, he says, parents marry off their children to relatives, to give their nephews or nieces in Pakistan a better life in Hong Kong, or to fulfil promises of marriage made when their daughters and sons were still in childhood.

Puja Kapai, associate professor of law at HKU, says she also came across cases of forced marriage involving Indian families.
PHOTO: South China Morning Post

Puja Kapai, an associate professor of law at HKU, led a research team that interviewed 25 Hong Kong Pakistani youth aged 14 to 22 and found it was common for Pakistani children to be engaged early, with girls typically engaged or encouraged to marry by the age of 14 or 15.

Her research between 2017 and 2018 found that once the parents arrange a marriage, the children are expected to go along to safeguard the family’s reputation. Rejecting a proposal would bring disgrace, disputes or feuds between families.

Kapai, who is of Indian origin, says aside from her research which centred on the Pakistani community, she also came across cases involving Indian families.

She says there are cultural, educational and social influences behind the practice of forced marriages, and parents pressure their children to marry, even threatening to pull all their siblings out of school if they disobey.

She says forced marriage can have a detrimental impact on individuals, families and society.

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“The most significant impact is that the girls lose control over the direction of their life. In some cases, they also suffer a great deal of psychological and even physical abuse,” she says.

Pulling girls out of school to marry early can lead to intergenerational poverty within families, she says, and the practice reinforces gender stereotypes and gender inequality at home and in society. Women in such marriages may suffer domestic violence as well.

Matt Friedman, chief executive officer of the Mekong Club, a Hong Kong-based anti-slavery non-profit organisation, says forced marriages also involve young men and girls in South Asia being forced to marry into Hong Kong families.

No data is available, but he says from his exchanges with frontline NGOs in Hong Kong, there is anecdotal evidence that some young brides or bridegrooms face a harsh reality when they start their new lives in the city.

They are isolated, threatened to remain silent, and face physical and emotional abuse. He says some end up working “like slaves” in the home or in businesses, and those with jobs are expected to bring back income for the household.

“They are taken advantage of in a marriage situation, and brought into the marriage for the sake of being used for their time and labour to raise money or do things for the household,” he says.

Mufti Muhammad Arshad, chief imam of Hong Kong, says forced marriages can be prevented through education, enforcement of the law and mosque sermons. 
PHOTO: South China Morning Post

‘A violation of fundamental human rights’

Barrister Albert Luk Wai-hung says Hong Kong has no specific criminal law against forced marriages, but those coerced into marriage can call police or seek to have their unions nullified.

Family law specialist Billy Ko says a forced marriage in which pressure or abuse is used on either party runs counter to Article 19 of the Hong Kong Bill of Rights Ordinance which says no marriage can be entered into without both parties’ free and full consent.

“As such, forced marriages would constitute a serious violation of fundamental human rights protected in Hong Kong,” he says, adding that victims may apply to have the marriage declared null and void.

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Kapai, of HKU, emphasises the importance of keeping girls in school longer and providing financial support for their education, as poverty is a major reason families pull their children out of school to marry.

She also says children need to know how they can seek help, and parents ought to be educated too, to dissuade them from forcing their children into arranged marriages.

Mufti Muhammad Arshad says forced marriages can be prevented through education, enforcement of the law and mosque sermons.

Ahmed Raheel, who almost lost his daughter after he chose a husband for her, still struggles with whether arranged marriages work.

All he has ever wanted was to do his best for his children, he says, but he has come round to accepting that times have changed.

“I want my children to be happy. If they are happy, it is OK,” he says.

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This article was first published in South China Morning Post.