When Jasmeet Gill looks at photos from her wedding day that took place in India 30 years ago, she's reminded of the terror and sadness she felt that day.
"You can just see it in my eyes," Gill told VICE News. It was only 10 days earlier that Gill, then 24, first met the man who would become her husband, when her parents announced that, no matter what, she would be getting married and moving to Canada. "I cried every day until the wedding, but they didn't listen. I did not want to be with this man," said Gill. "But I had no choice."
Gill had never been with a man before and didn't know what to expect. "On our wedding night, it was a scary thing, the way my husband was behaving," she said. He threatened to kill her if she didn't have sex him. A few days later, the physical abuse started. He started hitting and punching her. One day, he knocked her out completely. She was covered with bruises and her nose was broken.
In 1986, after her husband successfully sponsored her, she arrived in Mississauga, Ontario, with their seven-month-old son, hoping they would start fresh. But things got worse. Her husband started beating both of them. After three months, Gill couldn't take it and decide to get out. "He was going to kill me," she said.
At the time, she thought she had nowhere to turn for help. She didn't even know how to describe what she was going through. Now almost 20 years later, what happened to her has a name and is about to become a crime.
This week, Canada's parliamentary committee on citizenship and immigration heard from witnesses and other survivors of forced marriage about Bill S-7, the government's proposed legislation that would, for the first time, make forced marriage a crime in Canada. The bill, also known by its (widely criticized) official title, the Zero Tolerance for Barbaric Cultural Practices Act, is moving quickly through the House of Commons and is expected to become law in the coming months, making Canada one of about a dozen countries to criminalize forced marriage, including Germany, Belgium, Pakistan, and Turkey.
Aruna Papp, an activist and forced marriage survivor testified at the committee hearing in Ottawa on Thursday that even though Bill S-7 is not perfect, it will bring previously hidden cultural practices into the open and punish those who force women and girls to marry against their will. "This thrills my heart," she told the committee.
Yet while many women's rights groups agree that Bill S-7 is necessary to combat forced marriages in Canada, the bill also faces significant opposition from others who say it will only make the problem worse.
The difference between a forced marriage and an arranged marriage is consent. A marriage is forced when one or both parties does not freely consent to the union. Usually, one or both parties is being subjected to duress or coercion by outside forces, like members of their family or community. A forced marriage is not the same as an arranged marriage, in which it is possible for both parties to consent to the union.
Bill S-7, first introduced last November by Canada's Citizenship and Immigration Minister, will make it a crime to participate in or officiate a marriage that is forced, punishable by up to five years in prison. Special court-ordered peace bonds will be created to use against someone who is suspected of taking a child outside of Canada to get married. The new law will also make it impossible to immigrate to Canada if you are in a polygamous or forced marriage. This could also apply to women and girls fleeing these situations — rendering help even further out of reach, critics say.
The bill was introduced five months after forced marriage officially became a crime — punishable by up to seven years in prison — in the UK, where the problem is well-documented. In 2005, the UK government created its Forced Marriage Unit to respond to an increasing number of reported cases. In 2013, the unit said that it "gave advice or support" to more than 1300 people in "possible" forced marriage cases.
In Canada, however, statistics on forced marriages are scant. One of the only reports on the issue was released in 2013 by the South Asian Legal Clinic of Ontario (SALCO), which provides assistance and legal advice to victims of forced marriage. Authors of the report interviewed workers at 30 social services agencies in Quebec and Ontario and found 219 confirmed or suspected cases across the two provinces from 2010 to 2012. Of these, 103 were Muslim, 44 were Hindu, 12 Christian, 24 were unsure of their religious identity, and five reported no religious affiliation.
SALCO is one group of many across the country that opposes the bill. Lawyers who work at the clinic argue that criminalizing forced marriages could drive the practice further underground and discourage women and girls from calling the police on family members. They also say that the Canadian criminal code is well-equipped to deal with the crimes associated with forced marriages, such as forcible confinement, kidnapping, and sexual assault. And it perpetuates harmful stereotypes about people in polygamous and forced marriages, they say. In a scathing statement SALCO released last year about the bill, signed by 15 other human rights advocates and women's shelters, the group calls on the government to focus its resources not on creating more crimes, but, instead, providing more health and social services to victims of violence.
Gill eventually divorced her husband and became a Canadian citizen. Now, 54, she works at a community centre as a counsellor for victims of domestic violence. She attends regular support meetings in Toronto with other survivors of forced marriage, and is elated by the new legislation, despite the criticism.
"I wish it had been in place at the time when I was in a forced marriage and being brought to Canada," she said. "Even if that meant I couldn't come here at all."
Follow Rachel Browne on Twitter: @rp_browne