Femmes for Freedom is a Dutch Foundation, established on 5 December 2011. Femmes for Freedom advocates women’s rights and fights against forced marriage, marital captivity, polygamy, honor killing and forced abandonment of women during a family visit overseas. Femmes for Freedom is dedicated both to preventing these crimes and to (legally) assisting women who are held captive in a marriage.
Femmes for Freedom successfully campaigned for an expanded definition of forced marriage. According to Femmes for Freedom not only forcing women into marriage, but also denying women the right to divorce should be illegal. Femmes for Freedom presented this new definition of a forced marriage and marital captivity to Dutch MP’s and, consequently, the Dutch Parliament recently accepted the forced marriage bill with this broader definition in the Dutch Penal Law. Before this broader definition, marital captivity was already acknowledged as a wrongful act in Dutch jurisprudence.
Marital captivity refers to a situation in which women are unable to terminate their religious marriage. This means that even though the Dutch courts can dissolve their civil marriage, women are forced to stay informally married under the law of their religion or women who are forced to stay married under the family law of their country of origin.
The issue of ‘chained women’ or marital captivity is found within Muslim, Jewish, and Hindu communities in the Netherlands. Women from these various religious backgrounds often marry twice: The first marriage is the Dutch civil marriage, the ‘second’ marriage ceremony takes place in a church, synagogue, mandir or a ceremony performed by an Imam. When these women wish to divorce, they have to divorce twice: according to Dutch civil law and according to their respective religion. A Dutch court can only dissolve a civil marriage, it can not end a religious marriage. When a woman wishes to end her religious marriage, she usually is reliant upon the cooperation of her (ex-)husband. If he, however, refuses to cooperate she will remain trapped in the religious marriage. This puts women in a position of discrimination and oppression; a position from which they experience negative consequences both in their religious community in The Netherlands and in their country of origin.
As long as the wife is tied to her religious marriage, she lacks independence and is hampered in her participation in Dutch society. She may become socially isolated and will not be able to start a new relationship. If she does start a new relationship without having obtained, for example, an Islamic divorce, she will be considered an adulterous women in most Islamic cultures and countries. The majority of Islamic countries have a sharia-based family law which does not accept a ‘secular’ (i.e. civil) divorce and therefore continues to see the couple as married. Jewish law, which is supported by Israeli law gives absolute authority over marriage and divorce to the religious courts and empowers men as the sole executors of the divorce process. This leaves women vulnerable to extortion, manipulation and abuse. Women who live in marital captivity are trapped for long periods of time, even decades, in a state of limbo and unable to rebuild their lives. This is discrimination and violence against women. States need to take all appropriate measures to also eliminate this discrimination against women (article 16 CEDAW).
One of the problems encountered in particular by Muslim women is the non-recognition of Dutch judicial divorce decisions in their country of origin. Muslim women in The Netherlands and other countries have to fight for their rights in two worlds: in their own community in the Netherlands and in the courts of their countries of origin. They have to deal with two legal systems and do not enjoy equal rights to men in these countries and both legal systems. Why is divorce often the exclusive right of men? Why should Muslim women give up their rights and compensate men when they file for a divorce (khul)? Whereas men do not suffer from marital captivity, as they are allowed to marry multiple wives, marital captivity affects women and their children.
That is why fundamental rights of women are at stake! In order to enable these women to participate as full members of their societies and live a life in dignity and safety something should be done. Let’s unite and fight for justice and equality in all spheres of family law! It is time to start a global battle for the recognition of the right to divorce as a human right and let’s work together and make an end to marital captivity!
The right to family life and the right to marry are regarded as basic human rights according to the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR). Femmes for Freedom strives also for the recognition of the right to divorce as a human right and therefore aspires full compliance with the UN Women’s Convention (CEDAW), with emphasis on article 16: equal treatment for women before, during, and after marriage.
Femmes for Freedom lobbies for legal change, awareness and assistance, working on public relations, and providing information for victims of marital captivity and supports them with legal support if they want to take legal action against their husbands. We initiated an online reporting tool through which victims of marital captivity can report, be identified and offered legal assistance. Femmes for Freedom also provides information for NGO’s, social workers and lawyers. Femmes for Freedom wants to support victims of marital captivity with the Freedom Fund, Freedom Buddies and Freedom Empowerment.
Femmes for Freedom was established on 5 December 2011 and already we achieved success in numerous ways. As stated earlier, we successfully campaigned for an expanded definition of forced marriage to include marital captivity. Our proposal was accepted and included by the Dutch government in a recently adopted amendment to the Penal Law on 22 October 2012. Also, the Dutch government is currently in the process of setting up ‘Forced Marriage Unit’, all due to Femmes for Freedom’s efforts.
Femmes for Freedom has won the Women Inc Cordaid price for female empowerment, in November 2012 it won the Red Hot Women Award for the most inspiring women in the Netherlands, in January 2013 Aletta van Nu Award and in February 2013 the Leah Globe Award.