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Statement on the dissolution of a forced marriage by annulment (TAS 478/2020, issued on 1 December 2020)

The Ministry of Justice asked the Ombudsman for Equality to comment on a draft government proposal putting forward provisions in the Marriage Act that would allow for the dissolution of a forced marriage by annulment. The legal effects of an annulled marriage are similar to those of a divorce, but the marital status returns to that which it was before the annulment took place.

The Ombudsman for Equality considers that the proposed change recognises the human rights violations that typically affect women and girls in national legislation. Even if the change in the law is primarily symbolic in effect, it is an important statement from this point of view.

The Ombudsman for Equality shares the view of the proposal that this special provision is a message that forced marriage is recognised as a violation of human rights and that marriages arranged through means of coercion will not be accepted. There are specific situations in which it may be important for a person forced into marriage that the marriage be annulled and that, as a result of the annulment, their marital status be restored to that which they had before the forced marriage, rather than being that of divorced. The draft Government proposal states that this is important in communities in which there is a strong stigma associated with divorce. 

In practice, the proposed change in the law is deemed to have a greater effect on women, as potential applicants for marriage annulment. However, the Ombudsman for Equality drew attention to the fact that the proposal does not appropriately recognise and treat forced marriages as a gendered phenomenon. Despite the entries in the legislation and the proposed change being gender-neutral in terms of their language and their being equally applicable to men and women, the issue is not one of a gender-neutral phenomenon. For example, the Council of Europe Convention on Preventing and Combating Violence against Women and Domestic Violence (Istanbul Agreement) explicitly regulates forced marriages.