Injustice of Marital Captivity

Renew Europe
5 min readJun 29, 2018


Marital captivity refers to a situation in which women are unable to terminate their marriage. This means that even though the courts can dissolve their civil marriage, women are forced to remain in their marriages under their religious laws or under the civil family law of their country of origin (limping marriage). In Europe the issue of ‘chained women’, or marital captivity, is often found within Muslim, Jewish, Catholic and Hindu communities, or elsewhere in countries that have a Catholic-inspired family law like the Philippines or Malta. As long as not all divorces are recognized equally, it remains of the utmost importance to engage in bilateral and multilateral discussions with countries that have family laws enabling marital captivity. The EU speaks for its 28 members, and holds considerable influence during these negotiations.

On Monday 25 June ALDE, together with Dutch NGO Femmes For Freedom organized a hearing (see our Photo gallery) bringing together a broad audience of academics, experts, politicians and EU stakeholders to discuss the issue that keeps women trapped in a religious marriage and thus in a position of discrimination and oppression. These women lack independence and are hampered in their participation in society. Therefore, we think it is high time that marital captivity is recognized as gender-based discrimination and violence and, for the international community to raise its voice.

Video credit: Femmes For Freedom (2018)

Hilde Vautmans ALDE Member of the European Parliament (Open VLD, Belgium) commented at the event:

“When people usually think of a marriage, we think of love and happiness. A celebration of a special bound between two people. But unfortunately this is not always the case. Some women might have been forced to marry someone they never met before, a stranger, someone they do not love, someone chosen by their family. Others might marry with a person they love, they choose, but this love can also disappear over time.

In many marriages women become the victim of violence, abuse and oppression. They might be seen as the one who has to provide for the whole family in law or even as an object a man possesses. And then there comes a point when the suffering becomes too much. The moment when they say, ‘enough is enough; I want and need a divorce’.

Hilde Vautmans MEP (Open VLD / ALDE) on marital captivity

Dissolving a civil marriage in Europe is usually not so problematic. Of course many things need to be settled, the custody of children, the settlement of goods and accounts. But ending a marriage is possible within a reasonable timeframe without extreme challenges. But when it comes to religious marriages the situation is very different, especially for women of migrant or refugee background. Because a civil divorce, settled by a civil court will not end this religious marriage. Moreover, a civil divorce is often not recognized in a country where religious laws apply. Making them a prisoner in their marriage, of their husband and of the religious system. You could say, well ask for a religious divorce. But this is often not possible. Following religious rules women are often reliant upon the cooperation of the ex husband and if he is not willing to cooperate she is in practice forced to stay cackled to him and his family.

Due to this horrible situation women lose their independence, their right to live, their right to self-determination. They cannot start a new relationship, they are isolated from their own community, and they are left alone. And if they try to fight back, if they do everything in their power to put an end to their marital captivity, they encounter serious violence and threats. Some of which even lead to suicide and honor killings.

In this Parliament we often talk about early and forced marriages, we condemn them and try to find solutions to end this kind of gross human rights violations. But when it comes to the situation of marital captivity it stays often too quiet and these women stay in the dark, completely invisible.

While it is not easy to find a solution for this extreme form of discrimination at European level, we should never forget that the European Union firmly supports gender equality and the empowerment of women as one of its founding principles. Therefore I see it as our duty, of Europe and of the whole international community to raise our voice to defend and fight for all those women who are held in this state of limbo and horror.”

These concrete recommendations were made following the EP hearing of 25/06/2018:

- The EU and its Member States must recognise marital captivity as a form of gender based discrimination and violence; The EU should encourage its Member States to include marital captivity in the definition of forced marriage and make it a wrongful act which is punishable;
- EU Member States should exchange best practices in preventing marital captivity, protecting the victims and solutions to dissolve the religious marriage;
- The EU and its Member States should establish national forced marriage units for EU citizens who became victims of forced marriage and marital captivity abroad; The Units could provide for legal aid , fair trial assistance, dialogue with relevant countries, and strengthen grassroots movements such as a ‘She Decides Europe’;
- The EU Member States could broaden the scope of both The Brussels IIa Regulation on conflict of law issues in family law between member states; in particular those related to divorce, child custody and international child abduction as the Rome II Regulation regarding the conflict of laws on the law applicable to non-contractual obligations in order to include also religious marriages;
- The EU Member States could foresee the possibility to fine a husband who deprives a woman of her possibility to divorce and even to criminally prosecute the husband if his behaviours stays unchanged;
- The EU could encourage its Member States to extend its jurisdiction to free women who find themselves in a situation of marital captivity due to the unwillingness of their partner living abroad;
- Encourage the Members of the Council of Europe to amend the Recommendation Rec (2002) 5 of the Committee of Ministers on the Protection of Women against Violence and to include Marital Captivity;
- Use all relevant Human rights Committees and Conventions to fight Marital
- Ensure greater awareness about the phenomenon and include references to the injustice of marital captivity in EP reports and resolutions
- The religious communities must hold internal discussions about marital captivity and look for solutions, create awareness amongst women about the possible consequences of a religious marriage such discussions should specifically also involve women;
- EU Member States should give a voice to the women and girls affected by the
phenomenon and raise awareness with girls from a young age, f.e. by including the issue in the Member State’s educational curriculum, to inform girls and women about prevention and the possible consequences of a religious/ foreign/ unregistered marriage;
- The EP has called on several occasions on the European Commission to propose a legislative act to combat all forms of gender-based violence and domestic violence; The EP should specifically include marital captivity as a form of gender based violence when reiterating its call for such EU legislation;

Marietje Schaake Member of the European Parliament (D66/ALDE) takes a firm stand against marital captivity



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