Situation before the initiative began
Women’s shelters reported that Muslim girls increasingly ran away from home at the start of the summer vacation period, out of fear of being forced into marriage by their parents and/or other relatives when on holiday in the land of origin.
Establishment of priorities
As an umbrella organisation, SPIOR does not provide individual assistance. Our task is to promote emancipation and participation in society. Girls and women get special attention, because they often are in a specifically vulnerable and difficult position. We felt a responsibility to try to tackle this problem by raising awareness about it in the Muslim community and make the subject open to discussion, eventually most of all between Muslim parents and their children. In doing so, we hope to prevent forced marriages among this community in the future and thereby to empower Muslim girls and women.
Formulation of objectives and strategies
The objectives of the project were to prevent forced marriages, to promote better communication between parents and their children, especially daughters and to empower Muslim girls and young women. An important part of the strategy was to approach people with information that Islam does not approve forced marriages, since their religion is an important part of their identity and some even think that they are acting according to the religious instructions when forcing their children into marriage. To make this as clear as possible, people with authority in the communities, like scholars and imams, were called in.
Mobilisation of resources
At SPIOR there are two women’s consultants who concern themselves with the emancipation of girls and women. They drew up the initial proposal for the project. The implementation of the project demanded extra funding and extra human resources. So a request for financial support was made at the Ministry of Social Affairs and Employment, at the Department for Coordination of Emancipation policy. A subsidy was granted for the project in accordance with the department’s subsidy theme ‘rights and safety’. Additional funds were granted by the Municipal Health Service of Rotterdam, which then housed the Department of Emancipation and by the Oranjefonds, the largest foundation on social issues in The Netherlands.
The project was managed in part-time by (female) employees of SPIOR. In the implementation of the project, there was close cooperation with experts, scholars and imams as regards content. Especially for the information meetings for parents, there was also close cooperation with member organizations (mosques and socio-cultural organizations) and community centres, in order to involve people from the community most effectively.
Once the financial resources were granted for the project, there were no big problems anymore in the implementation. In preparation to the conference for Muslim girls, there were some practical problems because people who would lead a workshop cancelled, but we were able to find people to replace them. One might say the largest ‘problem’ was that not all people who wanted to participate, could. For example, also Muslim boys and professionals (e.g. teachers, social workers) wanted to come, but since the conference was meant for Muslim girls only, we had to turn them down. There is much more need for these kinds of activities than we could meet with this one project. Now we are planning a sequel to the project in which there will also be activities for these groups.
The project was meant in the first place for Muslim girls and their parents. At the conference for Muslim girls, more than 100 girls from several ethnic origins (mostly Moroccan, Turkish, Pakistani, Somalian) participated, even from other parts of the country. At the conference, all speakers and workshop leaders were Muslim women, so that firstly, it created a safe environment for the girls to speak openly and secondly, these women could be a role model for the girls. The participants were recruited through schools, the internet (sites for Muslim women), the member organisations of SPIOR, and ‘mouth to mouth advertising’.
For the ten information meetings for Muslim parents, we closely cooperated with several member organisations and community centres. The meetings were held at the organisations themselves, so it would provide an accessible and ‘safe’ environment. Meetings were held for parents with Moroccan, Turkish, Pakistani and Somalian origins. More than 600 parents were present during the meetings. Their own language was used, so they would have no problem to understand what was being said. Depending on the preference of the community concerned, some meetings were for mothers or fathers only, some for both together. Other members of the family and young people participated in these meetings also. The speakers had an important role. For this, scholars and imams were recruited, because they have some authority with the people in the community, so that the message would be ‘loud and clear’!
For assessing performance, of course the number of participants was registered. Furthermore, at the conference, the Muslim girls were asked to fill in an evaluation form. Their response was very positive in general: on a scale from 1 to 10, the average grade given was 8,4. Parents were asked for their opinion in an oral interview. Their reaction was also positive. Both girls and parents indicated they wanted more of this sort of activities. An extensive report of the whole project was made, in Dutch. This includes the contents of all lectures.
More than 700 people participated in the project. Judging by their reactions during the meetings, the information given about the Islamic perspective on forced marriages was very effective. For a lot of people, this was new information. It was an important reason for them to rethink their view on the choice of a partner. Also, the practical advices from scholars and imams gave especially parents an alternative on how to approach the issue and communicate openly with their children about it. For Muslim girls, this information and the training of communication skills meant an important step in their empowerment and emancipation process. So we are sure that the project contributed to raising awareness and making the subject open to discussion, especially between parents and their children, in other words: in people’s attitudes. Though it is harder to prove, we are convinced that this also has had an effect in the behaviour of people and the roles of women and men in the Muslim community. Especially girls were empowered, but the parents as well, because they were not judged, but were handed alternatives and advices. The summer after the project was executed, less Muslim girls came to the women’s shelters after having run off from home out of fear of being forced into marriage, but it is hard to say whether this is directly related to the project.
As was shown above, the project aimed at prevention and raising awareness to ensure a long-term improvement in the situation of in the first place girls and women. Promoting gender equality and the improvement of the social and economic position are important aspects. Because, when girls run away from home, they often end up in even worse socially isolated and economically dependent and insufficient situations. A lot of forced marriages end up in divorce and cause comparable problems for especially the women and possibly children involved.
Cultural sustainability is at the core of the project, since respect for and consideration of the attitudes, behaviour patterns and heritage of the Muslim parents was central in this approach. They were not judged, as often happens nowadays in Dutch politics and the media. In that way, the people involved do not listen to the message anymore, because they do not feel respected. In our project, we showed respect and understanding to the attitudes and behaviour of these people, but we also showed them the negative consequences of the behaviour and gave them advice and alternatives. An essential aspect of this approach was showing the people that the cultural tradition of forced marriages is not in concurrence with their religion, namely Islam. Many people think it is and uphold the tradition because of it, because their religion is so important to them. When shown that Islam requires free consent of both partners for a valid marriage, this is really an eye-opener to them. Parents still can advice their children in their choice of spouse, and for that, open communication is essential. So by approaching these people on the basis of this important aspect of their identity, with respect for their heritage and attitudes, sustainable gender equality and social inclusion are promoted.
First, it was shown clearly by this project that Islam can be used to improve living conditions of especially women and that this is an effective approach to really change the behaviour of the people concerned. The involvement of the communities themselves is also very important. As our organisation already had intensive contact with these communities through the member organisations, this posed no problem.
Second, we learned that there is a great need for initiatives like this among the Muslim community, in which sensitive issues are addressed with respect for the people concerned. In the project, mainly Muslim girls and parents were addressed. We learned that other groups also wanted to be involved, especially Muslim boys and professionals, like teachers and social workers who are confronted with clients that are forced into marriage and all kinds of problems caused by it.
To address these needs, we are now preparing a new project on this theme, in which there activities for boys and professionals as well, and in which a next step is taken to promote better communication between parents and their children.
In the preparation for the project, we mainly benefited from the expertise of organisations dealing with Muslim girls, whether in general activities, or in problematic situations, particularly girls who had run away from home. Also, we benefited from research results on the subject.
Based on these findings and on the character of our organisation, we decided we wanted to approach this problem in a preventive way. We soon found out that we were the first organisation in the country to approach this problem in this manner. So in that respect, we could not really benefit from the experience of others.
The project was welcomed very enthusiastically by other organisations, who also asked us if we could do a similar activity in their region (since this was mainly a local project).
The project in this form may not be that easy to replicate, since the cooperation with the communities concerned is essential and there are not much similar organisations like SPIOR in The Netherlands. However, we are now trying to make a process of replication easier. In the drafted sequel for the project, on the one hand we want to make an accessible book with relevant information about the subject for this target group. This information can also be used by professionals a.o. On the other hand, we offer advice and support to other organisations who want to organise similar activities or projects in other parts of the country, so they can profit from our experience and as much people as possible will profit from this approach. So it is our explicit goal to help others to replicate the success of this project, we do not want to do it alone.
Also, the general lessons of the project, e.g. about the importance of a respectful approach to people’s tradition and the effectiveness of using the Islamic perspective, to involve and affect people from different generations, both young people and their parents, can of course be profited from by other initiatives. Actually, in this day and age in The Netherlands, that is quite a unique approach which now slowly gets some more attention.
Related policy/ies or legislation
At the same time that the project was executed, the Minister of Alien Affairs and Integration asked her Advisory Committee on Alien Affairs to give advice on how to handle the problem of forced marriages. SPIOR met with members of the Committee on several occasions to offer advice, based on our experience in the project and knowledge of the situation in practice. We mainly gave advice on a preventive approach to forced marriages. The Committee’s first general advice included a proposal for legislation, making forcing someone into marriage punishable by law. It is not clear yet, however, whether this proposal will be adopted by the Minister and Parliament. The Minister has now asked for a second advice of the Committee on the subject of forced marriages, to make a proposal for the implementation of a new policy. The Committee has also consulted SPIOR for this proposal. Presently, it is not yet clear what the proposal will look like, but there is reason to believe that particularly where prevention is concerned, some of our suggestions will be adopted.