Child and forced marriage puts the “lock” in wedlock
Fraidy Reiss, activist and founder/director of Unchained At Last, joins Reid Maki, NCL’s director of child labor issues and coordinator of the Child Labor Coalition for a dialogue about the silent scourge of child marriage in America and the continued effort to support women who wish to leave coerced and forced marriages.
*Due to COVID-19 safety protocols, this episode was recorded remotely. Audio quality has been impacted as a result.*
Child and Forced Marriage Puts the “Lock” in Wedlock
Reid: Welcome everyone. I’m Reid Maki the Director of Child Labor Advocacy at the National Consumers League and the coordinator of the Child Labor Coalition. Today, we are talking to a remarkable advocate, Fraidy Reiss whose organization, Unchained At Last leads, a national campaign to ban child marriage in the U.S. Fraidy has a very interesting story that led her into this work, which we will hear later.
She’s also featured in Hillary and Chelsea Clinton’s book of Gutsy Women. Favorite stories of courage and resilience. Fraidy, many Americans are unaware that child marriage is a problem in the U.S. can you tell us a little bit about the prevalence of child marriage and why child marriage is problematic it’s negative impacts on girls here in the U.S.?
Fraidy: Sure, Reid. Thank you. It’s shocking. And I don’t know why so many Americans remain unaware of that child marriage is a significant problem in the United States. We know, based on the research that the non-profit that I founded Unchained At Last has done ground-breaking research. We know that 248,000 children were married in the U.S. just between 2000 and 2010. And almost all of them were girls married to adult men.
And child marriage doesn’t just sound bad it is terrible for many reasons, but the two main reasons that we at Unchained At Last are determined to end child marriage in the United States are one; it can so easily be a forced marriage. Which we can talk more about, but also because it has devastating lifelong repercussions, particularly for girls in the United States when they marry before the age of 18, it destroys their health, their education, their economic opportunities and really significantly increases their risk of experiencing violence within the marriage.
Reid: Well, we’re really proud to be partners with you in the campaign, both the National Consumers League and the Child Labor Coalition. We’re delighted to be working with you on this. How would you say the campaign is going? Have you had some successes as you’ve been trying to get States to tighten child marriage laws?
Fraidy: We have indeed. We have seen two historic victories so far in Delaware and New Jersey. In 2018, we helped them both become the first U.S. State to end child marriage. We also have seen historic victories into U.S. territories that’s American Samoa and the U.S. Virgin Islands. And just today, we actually had a step toward a victory.
The Pennsylvania Senate unanimously approved a bill to end child marriage. The House is expected to do the same within a couple of hours. And the bill is expected to go to the governor’s desk today. The governor Tom Wolf has already promised to sign it. So yes, we are starting to see some progress only 47 States to go.
Reid: That’s a daunting number. But you folks have been very vigorously pursuing this campaign and it’s been fun to watch.
Fraidy: Yes, there’s nothing easy about this. It’s definitely much more difficult than we expected this to be when we first set out ending child marriage. You think is a no brainer one can still have child marriage. So, it’s been extraordinary to see how difficult it’s been, but we were so grateful to the National Consumers League and the child labor coalition, and to the many others that have stepped up and said, we want to join in this fight. Let’s do this.
Reid: What do you think some of the obstacles are in trying to get these bills passed to limit child marriage? Is it the conservative view that parental rights, Trump, everything, has that been a real problem here?
Fraidy: Well, we’ve certainly heard that, but that’s not the main pushback that we’ve got. And I think the overall reason that this is so difficult, so much more difficult than it should be to end child marriage in year 2020 in the United States, I think has a lot to do with lack of understanding and lack of awareness of the issue.
I think most Americans still don’t know that child marriage is legal here in most of the United States. And I think that when people and legislators in particular hear about this after the initial shock, they start jumping to some inaccurate conclusions about child marriage. Well, “They’re children who are in love, and it’s somehow sweet and romantic.” And not fully understanding just how trapped children can become within a marriage. And just how devastating outcomes are for those in the United States who married before 18.
Reid: Do you find the pregnancy is driving a lot of child marriages?
Fraidy: We don’t have hard data on how many child marriages are related to a pregnancy because the data that we retrieved from across the U.S. that showed that an estimated 248,000 children were married here in the first decade of the century. It did not include identifying information about the children. It’s not included any information about while married, what their outcomes were.
Anecdotally though, because at Unchained At Last we work not only on advocacy, but we also provide direct services to individuals, mostly women and girls who are in or facing a forced marriage. And so many girls reach out to us to say, help me I’m about to be forced into a marriage or I’ve already been forced into a marriage and many women reach out to us as this has already happened to them. And so anecdotally we know that pregnancy for a lot of them was the reason that their parents forced them to marry or persuade them to marry.
Reid: So, in some cases, in many States that there’s a problem with parents having the right to basically dictate whether the children can get married and do parents always make the best choice for their children?
Fraidy: Well, that’s the scary thing. And a lot of States children can marry at specific ages and the laws vary by State, but in many States, children often at age 16 or 17 can marry if a parent just signs a form. In some States, both parents, but in many cases, just a parent has to sign a form. And that’s enough. That’s all it takes for a child to be marry off.
Unfortunately what we have seen again, anecdotally, there’s no data on this in the US, but what we have seen again and again, at Unchained At Last is that when someone in the United States is forced to marry, the perpetrators are almost always the parents. And so, this notion of a parental signature somehow providing some protection or being enough of a reason to marry off a child it’s preposterous. All It’s doing is empowering parents who want to be able to marry off their children to do so.
And we know of situations where girls showed up at the clerk’s office openly sobbing, or asking for help, begging for help or their parents sign a form and force them into a marriage. And there is nothing the clerk can do. So unfortunately, no, in many cases, parents are the reason that these children are being subjected to what the U.S. State Department calls a human rights abuse.
And in some cases, it’s parents who think they’re doing the right thing for a child and parents have all kinds of reasons. And we can only talk about some of the ones that we have seen, but in some cases, parents know that what they’re doing is wrong. In some cases, they think that they’re doing the right thing, but certainly allowing children to be entered into a serious contract that they can’t get out of based solely on a signature, on a form that’s dangerous.
Reid: You come to this issue through personal experience, you were in an early marriage that was somewhat coercive and it led you into this remarkable campaign that you are conducting now. Can you tell us about your marriage and your awakening, that you were in an unsustainable situation?
Fraidy: Sure. And I really refer to my own marriage as somewhat coercive. It was a forced marriage. I was raised in a very insular religious community where I did not have the choice about whether, when or whom to marry. It was decided for me, my family arranged my marriage to a stranger. I didn’t get to meet him, and I was told I can say yes to the marriage or not say yes to the marriage and face the terrible repercussions that would come from not just going along with it. And for me, that option of saying no was never an option.
And, from the beginning, it was an abusive marriage and because of religious laws and social customs in that community, even though I was in Brooklyn, in New York City, I had basically no escape route. I was completely trapped and it took me 15 years to finally escape from this marriage because in that community, I had limited human rights, limited, or no financial rights and no reproductive rights.
And when I finally managed to escape with my two daughters, my family retaliated against me by shunning me. They declared me dead. And, more than a decade later, they still consider me dead. So, I rebuilt my life and went on to found Unchained At Last to help others in the United States who find themselves in a similar situation.
Reid: And this was an Orthodox Jewish community?
Fraidy: That’s right. It’s the Ultra-Orthodox Jewish community in Brooklyn, in New York city.
Reid: I know 15 years was a long time for this all to play out, but were there early moments in your marriage when you realize that you were really in a situation that wasn’t going to be good for you?
Fraidy: One week after our wedding, he woke up late in the morning and became so enraged that he was screaming and cursing and punched his fist through the wall, hard enough that he left a big hole in the wall. And it was just downhill. From the beginning, it was an abusive marriage from the beginning. From seven days into the wedding, it was very clear to me, this was not a marriage that I wanted.
Reid: Wow. That’s, very chilling. And then there were many, many years of trying to coexist and make it work. And then was there another turning point, or was there a turning point near the end where you just said, I cannot do this anymore?
Fraidy: Well, there was another turning point when I was 27. When after a particularly violent incident at home after I had secretly started seeing a therapist from outside the community, who explained to me what domestic violence was and explained to me what my legal rights were. I walked into a police department, we had moved from Brooklyn, into Lakewood, New Jersey in Ocean County, where there’s a large Orthodox Jewish community. And so, I believe I was the first woman in the Orthodox Jewish community in Lakewood to go into the police department and ask for a temporary restraining order against my then husband.
And it was my family and community’s reaction to this restraining order that ultimately led me to leave because everyone I knew turned on me and rather than being concerned for my safety or ask why I felt I needed a restraining order, why I had done that? It was how dare you? Going in that community seeking help from the secular authorities is a sin that is punishable by death.
And I had committed that sin and the Rabbis in Lakewood sent an Orthodox Jewish male attorney to my house who drove with me to family court and had me stand in front of the judge and tell the judge that I wanted to drop the restraining order. And it was at that moment that I realized I need to get out and I need to do this on my own. Nobody’s going to help me.
Reid: Amazing. So, you mentioned that Unchained does direct service with many young women who are trying to either stop or get out of a child marriage that isn’t working for them. So, has your experience guided you through some of the sense that they’re facing a lot of obstacles that are preventing them from acting?
Fraidy: Sure. So first of all, to clarify, our main mission is ending the bigger picture of forced marriage, and most of our clients are adults. And were married as adults who are facing forced marriage as adults and we do have children reaching out to us. And we’ve worked with survivors who were married as children, but for the most part, we are working with adults. And, based on my own experience I have. And also, not only my own experience, because that was just one experience.
But also, from years of doing this Unchained At Last, I found it in 2011 and we’ve worked with more than 600 survivors in the year since. And so, we have gotten to a place where we have a fairly good understanding of the types of services that somebody in this situation needs. And we provide really comprehensive wrap around, often lifesaving services, everything from helping people escape to building their life and becoming emotionally and financially independent and everything in between. And we never charge for any of our services. They are always free.
Reid: And how do women find you? Is it mostly through your website or a phone, a toll-free phone line?
Fraidy: The three main ways that people find us are, first of all, through word of mouth, we get a lot of calls. We do have a form on our website we have an opportunity for people to submit, just to click on a link and say that they need help or they can email us or call us. And a lot of them say, Hey, how can you to help my friend, my sister, and in one case even my daughter, can you help me too? But also, we get referrals from a lot of domestic violence agencies, law enforcement, State Department as more of those organizations find out about us.
And these are organizations that survivor and agencies of survivors are more likely to find on their own we get a lot of referrals there. And then people just find us online. They do a Google search. And in many cases, they’re not allowed to be on the internet. In my former community, the Rabbis man the internet.
And so, in some cases they’re not even allowed to be on the internet, but that’s a hard rule to enforce and you find that the survivors reaching out to us in these instances are extremely resilient and clever in the ways that they find to be able to get help themselves.
Reid: Unchanged has engaged in national campaign to change marriage laws and it included some clever, innovative, public events. Could you tell us a little bit about Unchained Chain-Ins?
Fraidy: So, we’re very proud of the Chain-Ins it’s a form of protest that we invented where we gather a group of us as many people as we can get. And we all wear bridal gowns, which we provide by the way, they’ll donate their bridal gowns to us so that we can do this. And we wear vails. So, we do the whole bridal get up, and then we chain our wrists and tape our mouths.
And we do this at a State House sort of, we’ve done this in New York at Union Square. Oh, actually we did it in Union Square. That was early on. So that’s why we were still wearing black, but we’ve done that at Penn Station in New Jersey and Newark Penn Station. And it just really sends a really powerful message to legislators and to the public. This is what life looks like for a girl or a woman who was forced to marry. She is silenced and she is trapped.
Reid: I read online that you had one in Minnesota recently it had some really challenging weather circumstances around it.
Fraidy: Yes, everything about winter in Minnesota is challenging. I don’t remember the exact temperature that day, but it was minus 30 something. It was a level of cold that I had never seen before. And wearing a bridal gown in that weather was definitely a challenge, but we don’t let things stop us. To be fair and honest, it was an indoor Chain-Ins. And so, we did not have to stand outdoors at least in our bridal gowns.
We have done these Chain-Ins in multiple States and we were planning to do more of them Corona Virus right now has shut us down a little bit. As soon as we can leave the house safely again, we are going to continue chaining in and we’ll do this across the United States is one of the many things that we plan to continue doing until you and I can have this conversation. And I can report all 50 States, all five territories and DC have ended child marriage.
Reid: So, you’re in this campaign for the long run, you don’t care how long it takes. You’re, committed to seeing this through.
Fraidy: Oh, absolutely. And it’s one of those issues. There are really upsetting issues out there that we can talk about that don’t have an easy solution, like world hunger, poverty. There are so many things we can talk about that we would all want to change, but we just don’t know how, or it’s going to take a long time.
This is a simple, obvious solution, and it can be achieved not only in our lifetime, it could be achieved this month. All we have to do is pass legislation in all 50 States, the way that Delaware, New Jersey have done, as they ignore marriage, before 18 problem solved, moved on to world hunger and poverty,
Reid: I see some parallels to the campaign to legalize gay marriage, which, for many years, seemed like it was an impossible thing to achieve. And then, once they got going and States started passing the laws, it actually became very quick.
Fraidy: Yes. We certainly look at that movement as a source of hope, because as you said, when it started out it just seem so doomed. It was never going to happen. It’s a little bit different for us because if we started out the opposite thinking, it’s going to be so easy. Legislators are going to give us a hug and a high five, and they’re immediately and unanimously going to pass this legislation. So, we were surprised at the pushback we got, we knew that there were a lot of homophobic people in United States. I didn’t realize there were this many pedophiles.
Reid: We had similar feelings about our campaign to improve U.S. child labor laws, which we thought were a no brainer. We thought that the public would understand that 12-year olds shouldn’t be doing backbreaking labor on farms for almost no wages but it’s been a real challenge. The Child Labor Coalition has been working on this issue for about two decades with not many major successes. It’s been very hard to convince, especially with the strong farm lobby. It’s been very hard to convince the country that these children need to be protected. I feel your pain.
Fraidy: Yes. And it’s shocking. It’s so obvious. Why would you vote no to that? Why? I mean, yes. So yes. You feel my pain, you get it.
Reid: Can we dig a little deeper on the impacts on women. I know you said that a lot of the marriages you’re looking at are forced marriages and it may not be children, but in the case where children are getting married, can you talk about some of the health research or mental health, physical health and issues that are impacting children by getting married?
Fraidy: Sure. And when you hear this, you’ll understand why the U.S. State Department has called marriage before 18 a human rights abuse, because it really does destroy almost every aspect of a girl or woman’s life. So, we’ll start with education. We know that and this is studies done in the United States, not in a developing country right here in the U.S. so whether it’s Maryland, California, Minnesota, a girl, or a woman marries at, or before 18, she’s 50 percent more likely to drop out of high school and four times less likely ever to finish college. If she marries as a teen, she’s three times more likely to have five or more children.
We also know that women in the U.S. who married young are 31 percent more likely to end up living in poverty in adulthood. And then because of the forfeited education and the poverty and the stress that come from child marriage. We also know that here in the U.S. a woman who marry at or before 18, faces a 23 percent increased risk of heart attack, cancer, diabetes, and stroke, and increase risk of almost every psychiatric disorder. So, this is very much a public health issue. And then globally, there was a study that showed that around the world, women who marry before 18 are three times more likely to be beaten by their spouse than women who marry at 21 or older.
Reid: Well, those are very daunting statistics. And it really, belies the work you’re doing. And it’s just very clear that this is a phenomenon that needs to be curtailed. I participated in some of the state legislative work that you folks have done. And one of the things that legislators are struggling with is, many believe that 17-year olds could make these decisions or should be allowed to make these decisions. And you folks have, I think, rightly drawn a line since and said, no, this really needs to be an 18-year-old, needs to be an adult making these decisions. Can you talk a little bit about that distinction?
Fraidy: Yes. And so, for legislators who say, well, 17, 16, they’re nearly 18. What’s the big difference. They can be just as mature at that age. What we tell legislators is this is not a question of maturity. It is a question of legal capacity. And when you look at legal capacity, there is a massive difference between a 17-year-old, even one who’s 18th birthday is tomorrow and an 18-year-old, even one who just had a birthday today, the difference is one is a legal adult, and one is not.
And before you become a legal adult here in the United States, you simply do not have the basic rights that you need to navigate a contract, as serious as marriage, you can very easily be forced into the marriage or forced to stay in a marriage once you’re in it. So, I’ll go through to explain what I mean and keeping in mind that, of course, the laws vary by state.
So, I’m going to talk in generalities here. Generally speaking, before you turn 18 in the United States, you’re not allowed to leave home. If you leave home, you’re considered a runaway. In some States, you could actually be charged with a status offense for leaving home. And in many States, the police can drag you back home against your will. And that’s whether they’re dragging you back to parents, who are planning a wedding for you that you don’t want, or it’s to drag you back to an abusive spouse.
I should add here also, if we at Unchained At Last or other advocates help a child to leave home. In many States, we can be charged criminally for our part in it. If these children managed to get to a domestic violence shelter without getting dragged back home or arrested without an advocate arrested, most domestic violence shelters across the United States will not accept an unaccompanied minor. There are all kinds of liability issues that come with allowing a child in, without a guardian or a parent. And in many cases, there are funding guidelines that prevent them from doing that as well.
Retaining an attorney. So, you think, okay, well, there are all these complications. Get an attorney to help you through all of this. Contracts with children across the United States, typically are voidable in some States they’re actually void. And that means that a retainer agreement that a child enters into with an attorney is a worthless piece of paper. Attorneys do not want to take on children as clients. We have girls reach out to us to say, I called every attorney in my State. Nobody will take me on as a client. It gets worse. Children typically are not allowed to bring a legal action in their own name before they turn 18.
So not only does that mean in a lot of States, a child who was in an abusive marriage cannot seek a protective order against their spouse. But in many States, a child who is in an unhappy or abusive marriage is not even allowed to file for divorce. And keep in mind, we know from the statistics that most of the children who marry in the U.S. are girls married to adult men. So, the girls face all these overwhelming obstacles and handicaps and their adult husbands face none of these problems.
So, in addition to everything else, we’re creating significant imbalanced power. And we’d like to say Unchained At Last that the child marriage puts the lock in wedlock. It creates a trap for a child. And what often happens, Reid is when these girls reach out to us to ask for help, and we have to be honest with them and explain how limited their options are. In many cases, what they end up doing is turning to suicide attempts because to them death seems like the only way out that’s the way we have written our laws. That for a child who doesn’t want to marry what we’re telling them is the only way out for you is death.
Reid: I know that many young women who are trying to move out of an abusive relationship, if you’re under 18, you can’t sign a rental contract usually. It’s very hard to rent a place, right?
Fraidy: Yes. Exactly. So, the disabilities of non-age that I just described, that’s just scratching the surface. It goes on and on. Yes, exactly. Something like, if you can’t enter into a contract then you can’t rent an apartment in many States. Children before the age of 18 can get only a provisional driver’s license and they have a curfew, well, how are you supposed to escape?
Many times, the way that we plan our client’s escape is when everybody else is sleeping at midnight, you leave the house and we’ll pick you up around the corner. How you supposed to do that when you can’t even drive after a certain time, what we have created here is this legal nightmare for children where they can be entered into a marriage often on the say so of a parent or a judge without any oral, almost no say so from the child. And then this child is just trapped in the marriage until adulthood.
Reid: That’s very, very frightening. You mentioned the virus earlier. We do live in a very scary time with many women quarantined with spouses that may be abusive or have abusive tendencies. Are you, fearful that the rates of domestic violence and child abuse may rise during COVID? Is this a particularly frightening time for the Unchained team?
Fraidy: Well, it’s not just fearing it. We know that is the case and the statistics already show that’s exactly what’s happening and anecdotally we are seeing an increase in the number of clients reaching out to us. And we’re also seeing that when they reach out in many cases, their situations are extremely dire. So, when you think about it, just helping somebody to escape during a lockdown is a logistical nightmare.
So that part has become really difficult for those who reach out their lives are in danger. Even if they’re ready to leave just the typical escape routes that we would typically create for them and help them to plan are just not options right now. But also, a lot of the forms of abuse that we have seen, they’re very typical that parents will employ against a child, an adult or minor child when they’re trying to force them into a marriage.
They would otherwise raise red flags, but now they can go unnoticed. So for example, one of the tactics that parents often use is they tell their child, and this could be again, a minor, or it can be an adult who lives with their parents, they’ll say, well, until you say yes to this marriage, we’re going to lock you in your room. We’re taking away your phone. We’re taking away your laptop.
At any other time if this child or this adult, they didn’t show up to school, they didn’t show up to work, they didn’t show up to wherever they were supposed to be. That would raise red flags. But in this case, what’s happening is everybody’s locked down. So, nobody even knows we’ve had people reach out and say, this happened. They had to find really creative means to be able to contact us.
And that’s the only reason that we know this happened, but that means that there are others out there who are in this situation, who didn’t find some way to reach out to us for help, who right now could be trapped. It is a terrifying time right now. And, it’s just heart-breaking to think about, I’m sitting here, safe at home, what other people are experiencing at this moment.
Reid: Yes. It’s very frightening to think about, a lot of people out there in a very difficult situation. As far as COVID, has it impacted the legislative work that you folks are doing? You mentioned the recent victory in Pennsylvania. Did COVID interfere with that at all?
Fraidy: No. Okay. So COVID has destroyed and shut down a lot of things. And one of them is our legislative work. For the most part, our advocacy work has come to a standstill because a lot of state legislatures are either non-functioning right now, or are focused only on COVID related bills, but Pennsylvania is a bright spot. The legislative sponsors of the bill, there were very clever. So, for weeks, the bill was stalled. Like everything else and Pennsylvania was saying, we are considering now only COVID related bills.
Well, the legislative sponsors very creatively added an amendment to the bill that needed a COVID related bill. And suddenly the bill was fast tracked. And that’s how it was able to pass out of the Senate today. We pass it to the Senate committee last week, after six weeks of nothing happening. And then just today passed out of the Senate and is about to pass and maybe it already actually passes out of the House. I don’t know. I’ve been talking to you, maybe something good happened that I don’t even know about yet. And is expected to head very soon to the Governor who has already promised to sign [inaudible 28:12]
Reid: Have you found it hard or easy to engage people in different States on this issue? Are you working mostly through individual supporters or through local groups that are supportive of your mission?
Fraidy: Do you mean during COVID or in general?
Reid: In general.
Fraidy: Okay. So, this is not something that any one group or one person could do. This is a huge undertaking to end child marriage in a country of this size, where legislation has to pass in all 50 States and there’s additional legislation needed at the federal level. So, this is not something that Unchained At Last can do on its own? So, we’re happy to lead what has become a national movement. It’s kind of turned out that way.
And, we’re happy to stand as the leader of this movement but we absolutely rely on partners in every state. That’s a crucial part of our strategy in every state is to get State, County, Municipal agencies, individuals, survivors, clergy members, anyone who will join and come out and say, this is not just Unchained At Last, that wants you to end child marriage. These are your constituents. These are the people in your State.
And, that’s what we have found is a really important aspect of this. If we just show up one day in Minnesota and say, end child marriage, they would say who are you go back to New Jersey, but if we show up with a bunch of Minnesota based organizations and Minnesota residents and constituents, then we get people’s attention.
So, we’ve been very lucky that we’ve been able to build these coalitions in various States. And, as you knew, we also have a national coalition that’s working on legislation at the federal level and that group has 70 members at this point, and that’s an ever growing coalition of groups and individual survivors in the U.S. believe strongly that we should no longer be marrying off children and subjecting them to a place of [inaudible 30:16]
Reid: Would the national bill be similar to the state bills that have passed to ban child marriage in specific States, would it be a very similar approach?
Fraidy: No. So, at the state level, the age at marriage has been established fairly strongly that is within the purview of State’s rights. So that’s not something the federal government can easily do come in and set a marriage age. So, the actual changing of statute and saying, to get married in Mississippi, you need to be 18. That has to pass in Mississippi. At the federal level, though, there are additional loopholes in federal law that allow in some cases, even encouraged child marriage. And so that’s what we’re looking to do at the federal level.
And in fact, Senator Ron Johnson has introduced a bill that likely would have passed before COVID, and even now is becoming less likely. There’s a serious immigration loophole right now, there is no minimum age to petition for a foreign spouse or fiancé, or to be the beneficiary of a spousal fiancé visa. And so, this bill would set 18 as the minimum age, because right now what we see in addition to pregnancy often the reason that a child in the U.S. is forced to marry is that some adult overseas can get a U.S. visa and a path to citizenship.
Reid: And has Congress been receptive to this concern about immigration abuses?
Fraidy: Well, so far, the bill has not gone anywhere. Getting federal legislation passed is as hard as it is at the state level. The federal level is a whole new game that I have not played before, and it is just not easy. So right now, I think most legislators don’t even know that this bill exists and it’s really not on anybody’s radar. The way it was introduced was not ideal. Right now, only Republicans on the bill. And there is a House version as well with only Republicans.
So, especially since immigration related, when you have a bill with all Republicans on it, it makes it very difficult to convince Democrats to sign onto it. So, far it hasn’t been going very well. There’s another piece that Senator Johnson has promised that he would add to the bill if possible is eliminating right now, there’s a federal statutory rape law, but there is an exception for marriage. If you marry a child before you rape her or him, then under federal law, that is legal. And so, we want to eliminate the marital exception to statutory rape at the federal level. So that’s another big step, again, a no brainer, you would think everybody would support it, but it’s a matter of raising awareness and getting people on board.
Reid: Wow. I’m going to ask you about the many hundreds of women and girls that you’ve helped through these abusive situations. Could you talk about one or two that have stood out for you. Women that maybe others might identify with their struggle or their particular circumstances?
Fraidy: Well, I couldn’t share any story without first getting permission from a survivor, but I can talk about some of the patterns that we see. I think that one of the things that we see the most at Unchained At Last is I was saying before, when somebody in the U.S. is forced to marry, the perpetrators are almost always the parents. And so certainly in my own situation, this was the case.
And almost every client, every survivor we have ever worked with at Unchained At Last we all have in common is the sense of betrayal. This was my own parents who did this to me. So that’s something that I think a lot of people who are in this situation, about to be forced to marry or already in a forced marriage, can relate to that, that feeling of betrayal. These are the people who were supposed to love me. These are the people I would typically go to for help if somebody else was doing this to me, but it’s them, they’re the ones doing this to me. So where do I go? What do I do?
Reid: Yes. Where do I go? Who do I turn to? There is a new tool coming out, a documentary film called Knots: A Forced Marriage Story by Kate Ryan Brewer. The film is already winning awards on the festival circuit and like Unchained At Last, the Child Labor Coalition is really pleased to be a partner in the film’s release. And we’re hoping to help with the screening in DC as soon as things open up with regard to the virus. Can you tell us about your participation in the film and about the film itself?
Fraidy: Sure. So, Knots is a beautiful film. It’s a feature length documentary film about forced marriage and child marriage in the United States. And it follows three forced marriage survivors, and I am one of them. And as you said, it’s been on the film festival circuit. Again, COVID put an end to that, I don’t know when we’ll have a film festival ever again, but most recently it was screened at the Manchester Film Festival and won best documentary film.
And, it’s a really powerful way to get the message out that this is happening, but not just that this is happening, but to explain the impact on individual lives to people who haven’t seen it. Obviously I’m a little biased because I’m in it, but others who have seen it is that you’re just seeing the stories about what this meant for us, how each of us came to this and how difficult it was for us to get out and rebuild our lives really drove it home in a powerful way.
There’s also one of the main misconceptions I think about forced marriage in the United States is that it involves somebody holding a gun to your head, and you’re getting married now, whether you like it or not. Now that does happen. I have worked with survivors who were married at gunpoint. Think about how traumatic that is, but in most cases, there is no gun to the head. Nobody held a gun to my head. Nobody held a gun to the head of the other two survivors feature in Knots, but the film does a great job of showing how you can be forced to marry or forced to do other things without anybody holding a gun to your head.
Reid: Wow. Well, we’re talking about film. There’s a television series out now on cable called Unorthodox, and it’s gotten a lot of attention. It tells the story of an Orthodox woman whose situation was, I think, somewhat similar to yours. And she ends up fleeing from that restrictive marriage. Have you seen the show? And do you have any thoughts about it?
Fraidy: I have seen the show and yes, it is a very similar story to my own. It was based very loosely on Deborah Feldman’s memoir, the same title Unorthodox, which was a number one. I think it was a number one in New York Times bestseller. It was, I think, a New York Times bestseller when that came out many years ago, actually it was around the same time that I found Unchained At Last because I remember meeting, Deborah Feldman at the time and talking about her book and Unchained At Last.
Unfortunately, the series while aesthetically it’s very accurate. So, in terms of the apartments that the families live in. The wardrobe, the way people look, very, very accurate, but the series did not follow Deborah’s actual story. And so, the storyline itself to me was extremely disappointing. It not only ignored some of the really serious abuses against women in my former community, but it also portrayed escape from the community as ridiculous laughably deep.
So, the protagonist her first day off the boat, so to speak, she meets a group of really supportive friends. This is ridiculous, this is not just me, everyone I know who has left. It takes years and years to make friends. And then even then to get them to understand your experiences and be supportive. That’s something that takes decades. There’s no such thing as doing that in one day. But somehow with her, within a day she has this great group of friends.
And by the way, she’s also sleeping with the hottest guy in Berlin, which is fantastic for her. But again, just seems a little bit unrealistic. And there were a lot of little details about her escape, it was aggravating for me to watch this. I wanted to throw things at my screen. It was like, are you kidding me? This is ridiculous. You had the memoir, why didn’t you follow it and Deborah was involved in the production of this. So, she was a part of this, but, yeah, I wish they had done a better job of portraying that more accurately.
Reid: It should bring some much needed attention to this issue though. I would think.
Fraidy: Yes, it is a great way to raise awareness. Even during COVID, we’re still getting online donations from people that have never donate to us before, and I suspect that some of them are those who watched Unorthodox and then did a Google search and found Unchained At Last. So, it is a great way to raise awareness and look, even despite my concerns and problems with the show, it was still very entertaining and I enjoyed watching it. And we’re all looking for something to do right now. So, there was that.
Reid: Can you talk about your decision to start a non-profit, to tackle the problems that you’ve been talking about, maybe where you were in your life when that decision came about and if there was any impetus that made you decide I’ve really got to do something beyond what I’m already doing.
Fraidy: Yes. I always like to say it. I think it was survivor’s guilt. It came about because in 2011, I became financially independent enough that I was able to buy a small house for myself and my daughters. And I was at the closing of this house. And I was so excited. I assume I am the first woman in the history of my family ever to buy her own home. And I had overcome so much to be able to get there. And everybody thought that I would crumble and die and end up alone on a street corner somewhere.
And here I am buying at least a little tiny house. It’s a little Cape Cod that we call Palais de Triomphe. It’s an ambitious name for a tiny Cape Cod, but I was just so excited about it. And if you’ve ever been to a closing, you know how boring it is, it was just a bunch of lawyers sitting around and every time I tried to tell them how exciting this was, they said, I need your signature here and so I walked out of there. I said, I have to do something I got out. And I got to this point in my life that I am able to buy my own home, but there are so many other people who are still trapped. And so that was when the idea for Unchained At Last was born.
Reid: What career were you pursuing, before you started Unchained?
Fraidy: Well, so at the time I think I had already left journalism. When I got my degree, that was how I got out, was becoming the first person in my family to go to college, I graduated from Rutgers University at 32 and I got my Degree in Journalism. So, at first, I was a journalist. And then I think, yeah, definitely by 2011, I had already left journalism and I had become a private investigator. I was working at the time at Crow, which at the time it was the world’s largest investigation firm. I went from being an investigative reporter to being a private investigator.
So, I was a single mom working full time, commuting from New Jersey into Manhattan every day. And I thought, well, I have a couple of hours free every week. I can devote about two hours a week to Unchained At Last. We don’t need a budget. It was going to be an all volunteer organization. Well in my original business plan I wrote up five women the first year, and we’ll go to 10 women the second year and everything is going to be great. By the end of the first year, we had 30 clients and I realized this is going to take more than two hours a week.
Reid: Wow. Very impressive. I think it’s great that you decided to help others in the same situation you found yourself in. There are a lot of folks listening out there, hopefully that have heard about something they didn’t really know that much about and want to help. What would you tell those people?
Fraidy: I will tell those people, please go to unchainedatlast.org. Learn more about forced marriage and child marriage in the United States. And there are specific actions on there that you can take. There’s a get involved page, where there are different ways that you can get involved. Everything from applying for either a staff position or a volunteer position with Unchained At Last or internship, to just finding us on social media, sharing, liking, be it tweet helping to spread the word, joining us at an upcoming Chain-In.
Once we can leave the house again and Chain-In again, just educating yourself about the issue and spreading the word, talk to someone else about it. You’re shocked by what you heard today, mention it to whoever you’re stuck in the house with. Mention it next time you’re on a zoom call with a friend, just to say, Hey, did you know that forced and child marriage are still happening in the United States?
Reid: Yes. I think awareness is key. It’s certainly one of the struggles we face with our child labor issues. Most people tend to think that child labor is a problem that disappeared a long time ago and it’s not in existence still. And, just getting that awareness level up is a first step, I think dealing with a lot of problems.
Fraidy: Yes, exactly. Because we’re dealing with similar issues. That’s another reason we’re so grateful to have you as partners, because there are a few organizations that understand the issue as well as you do and understand, yes, this is something we all thought had been solved centuries ago, but we didn’t, and we need to still solve this and it’s not going to happen on its own to push legislators to do this.
Reid: Yes. As we draw to a close. We get close to finishing our talk here, do you have a message, a final message to young women who are either trapped in a child marriage or a forced marriage and are feeling hopeless?
Fraidy: I do. I want to let anybody who was in that situation know that you deserve better. You deserve to get help and you can get help. So, reach out to Unchained At Last, or reach out to a different advocacy organization that has an awareness of this issue. We are the only ones in the U.S. that’s dedicated to this issue, but you can reach out to a domestic violence agency or other agency that might be able to help you if you don’t feel comfortable reaching out to us at Unchained At Last, just know again, you deserve help and you can get it.
Reid: Oh, thank you. Thank you for those inspiring words. Fraidy I want to thank you so much for visiting with us for sharing your compelling story and for telling us about Unchained At Last work. We look forward both at NCL and the Child Labor Coalition. We look forward to continuing to work with you and exploitive child marriages and forced marriages in the U.S.
Fraidy: Well, thank you so much. We really appreciate your partnership and your reasoning.