Dalhousie Journal of Legal Studies


Krista Stout


The phenomenon of forced marriages during armed conflict has recently garnered international attention, as it has become apparent that these coerced relationships are not mere happenstance, but are often the result of strategic planning on the part of armed groups and are thus an integral part of ongoing conflicts around the globe. The purpose of this paper, therefore, is to critically examine the phenomenon as it manifests itself in armed conflict situations, with a specific focus on Sierra Leone, and to unpack the various violations that occur under the guise of this pernicious labeling to see whether it is desirable and justifiable to name forced marriage as a separate crime under international humanitarian law (IHL), or whether the phenomenon is adequately addressed within the framework of existing IHL. I will ultimately argue that the recognition of this separate and distinct crime under IHL is a necessary and logical development in the law, as it forms part of a trend toward increasing recognition of the unique gender-based harms that women and girls face within armed conflict. While some authors have argued that naming the crime forced marriage leads to a “complete misrepresentation and distortion” of the women and girls’ experience within these relationships, this paper will argue that it is not the naming of forced marriage as a crime that will lead to this misrepresentation and distortion. The ultimate goal in arguing for the naming of forced marriage as a separate and distinct crime under IHL is to help avert, at least partly, this body of law inscribing and reinforcing a “partial and distorted vision of women that has little to do with the reality of their lives, or the way they experience warfare.” This article will suggest that naming is an important step in rendering this crime visible and thus in enabling the international community to express its condemnation of forced marriage, but more importantly in giving voice to the experience of the women and girls who are coerced into forced marital relations. The first section of this article provides a contextual backdrop to the discussion to follow by presenting the experiences of the “wives” of Sierra Leone in their own words, thus allowing for the formulation of a definition of forced marriage that captures the true nature of these “marriages” as they are understood by affected Sierra Leonean women and girls. The second section introduces the 2008 decision of the Special Court of Sierra Leone (SCSL) in Prosecutor v. Alex Tamba Brima, et. al., which found that forced marriages are a crime against humanity. The third section addresses the constituent elements of the overarching crime of forced marriage, namely sexual slavery and enslavement, other sexual violence, and the use of child soldiers, to show how prosecution of the individual components of forced marriage is inadequate. The final section argues that naming forced marriages as a separate crime within IHL is essential in that it forms part of a recent trend of gendering IHL, gives voice to the victim-wives, and may have a normative and practical influence beyond the boundaries of IHL.

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Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 License.