Home » Research » To have and to hold: human trafficking and marriage

To have and to hold: human trafficking and marriage


Alongside the issue of trafficked fisherman, the topic of human trafficking and marriage has left much to our imaginations as policy researchers – the published NPA doesn’t address it, and there appears to be little interest within the NGO community regarding this potential group of trafficked persons. Does that mean the problem doesn’t exist in Singapore? To be frank, we aren’t sure, but anecdotal evidence suggests that it should, at the very least, be a topic integrated into future research endeavors.

Distinct from arranged marriage, according to the UN Special Rapporteur on trafficking, forced marriage may occur as:

1)      a method of recruitment for trafficking – by, for example, the promise of dating or marriage abroad leading to sexual exploitation; as in, come for the wedding, stay for the forced prostitution! and/or

2)      the result of trafficking, in other words, being trafficked for the purposes of marriage, usually accomplished via the threat of/force, fraud, or coercion. The Supplementary Convention on the Abolition of Slavery also refers to servile marriage, in which a woman might be promised and/or given in marriage without her consent.

Early marriage or forced child marriage concerns the particular capacity of children to freely and fully consent to marriage. Although this generally occurs in parts of South/South East Asia, Africa and the Middle East, it has had substantial effects on migrant communities located abroad. For example, in the UK

This includes British born children trafficked out of the UK to be forcibly married abroad and children who have been trafficked to the UK on the basis of a false promise of marriage only to end up in sexual exploitation. ECPAT UK has also found evidence that migrant children have arrived in the UK on forged identity documents to make them appear older having been forced into a marriage in their country of origin to a UK citizen, or more rarely, to be married in the UK.

The process of international marriage brokering is often marked by the commodification of foreign women and objectionable marketing tactics, which emphasize youth/virginity/beauty and tend to be underscored by racist and seemingly exploitative undertones. Despite these practices, not all marriage arrangements qualify as trafficking, in the same vein that not all prostitution qualifies as trafficking. But, certain marriage arrangements may involve trafficking risks, including regional interest in marriage tours and “mail-order brides”; trafficking may represent a subset of these arrangements, certainly not all.

So, what does this have to do with Singapore?

Well, for starters, 37 percent of Singapore’s population is foreign. The State has one of the highest proportions of citizens marrying foreigners in Asia and is home to a number of marriage brokering agencies. Given the large number of resident foreigners in Singapore, situations such as the aforementioned UK example, may be of interest for future research development.

As far as we are aware, while there has been some recent research and some advocacy on foreign wives, this has been restricted to a focus on the relationship between Vietnamese women and Singaporean men. (For the rest of us foreign women married to foreign men this raises some interesting questions about legal protections and service provision.) Robust research examining the potential abuse or exploitation within marriage for all foreign women remains absent, while trafficking itself is relegated to the occasional media story or anecdotal evidence. The latter is illustrated through the following example, in which all research participants entered Singapore on a legal visa:

The primary mechanism detected for Bangladeshi participants [identified as trafficked women] in this study was marital fraud, which means that false marriages between participants and Bangladeshi male migrant workers in Singapore were established by “agents” in Bangladesh using the identities of Bangladeshi men, usually without the latter’s knowledge or permission. Victims were subsequently brought into Singapore on SVPs as “wives”, citing the couple’s desire to conceive a child as the justification for visa approval and entry.

Generally, situations like these are given little attention, but should be further explored – perhaps through the partnership of embassies and others dealing directly with local communities – to assist in developing indicators for detection of abuse. And service providers: regardless of trafficking (and prostitution), are there any services or outreach efforts being provided to foreign women concerning intimate partner violence, labor rights and exploitation? Surely these groups would require specific protections and outreach.

As for the law, although it appears that Singapore prohibits situations of trafficking for the purpose of marriage (scenario 2, above) through the existing Kidnapping, Abduction, Slavery and Forced Labor statute and Women’s Charter, legally, we are unconvinced that existing laws adequately protect women and minors who may experience marriage as a recruitment method for trafficking (scenario 1, above). Specifically, the kidnapping law seems to protect against either forced marriage OR prostitution; moreover, there is a lack of clarity about Section 140 of the Women’s Charter, which only applies to prostitution, and appears to have marriage exemption clauses throughout 140(1). And while section 141 (Traffic in Women and Girls) prohibits trafficking for prostitution, 141(2) specifically excludes marriage:

(2)  No person shall be charged with an offence under this section if he satisfies the Director that the woman or girl brought into or taken out of Singapore by him or intended to be brought into or taken out of Singapore by him was so brought into or taken out of Singapore or is intended to be so brought into or taken out of Singapore for the purpose of her marriage or adoption and that such marriage or adoption can be solemnized or made and has been or will be solemnized or made under the laws and customs for the time being in force in Singapore.

Although, we are certain that existing legal consequences (a fine not exceeding $3,000 or to imprisonment for a term not exceeding 3 years or to both) for “any person who uses any force or threat to compel a person to marry against his will” remain woefully inadequate. Until a proper legal analysis is conducted, we remain hopeful that a brilliant legal mind will be able to provide some clarification.

As previously stated, we cannot be sure that marriage trafficking is a problem in Singapore, too little information exists. However, it is an issue tied to growing regional policy interest and is yet another area deserving of research as well as partnership between key stakeholders and embassies, attorneys (who may know a thing or two about fraudulent marriage documents), and religious leaders. We’ve previously argued, during the implementation of the NPA, it will be necessary to maintain a broad investigative outlook in order to creatively manage new information on the trafficking landscape, especially regarding prevention efforts, intervention, prosecution and service provision. For example, in Singapore the government has distinguished between sex and labor trafficking, and globally there is a strong interest in the link between marriage and sex work/sexual exploitation; however, should we not allow space for the possibility of trafficking into marriage for labor exploitation? As Liz Kelly notes,

Globally, the sex industries are remarkably flexible, shifting their locations as well as their form and contents in response to technological change, market testing and the relative strength or weakness of law enforcement and monitoring. This makes effective intervention more complex, since poorly conceptualized actions may have the effect of merely diverting an activity and even of making it less susceptible to any form of scrutiny. This in turn may mean that the possibilities of escape or the detection of entrapped women also diminish.


1 Comment

  1. […] offence to force someone to marry against their will.  Similar issues to the ones explored in an earlier post written by my co-contributor, apply to the UK context.  Forced marriage in the UK can take a […]

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