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Angela Merkel objects to forced marriages in Germany

Angela Merkel, German Chancellor, disapproves forced marriages. Chancellor wants tougher legal measures against this Muslim practice. It is another sign of Germany's decreasing tolerance of Muslim immigrant ways that clash with the country's liberal values.

Women's groups campaigning against the practice are applauding Merkel's idea to raise fines and specifically target forced marriage.

Merkel addressed the issue in a speech at a women's conference of her conservative Christian Democrats over the weekend.

"I completely agree that forced marriages should be punishable as a criminal act," Merkel said.

Currently, prosecutors rarely pursue criminal charges against forced marriages and, when they do, must use laws banning assault - which can carry up to five years in prison.

The thinking is that making forced marriages specifically a criminal act would ease prosecution and send a signal to the Muslim community that the practice is inconsistent with the constitutionally enshrined worth and dignity of the individual.

Approximately 3.3 million Muslims live in Germany, 70 percent of them of Turkish origin.

"We are thrilled that the chancellor has made such a clear statement," said Sibylle Schreiber from the women's rights group, Terre des Femmes, who has long been pushing for a tougher stance. "Finally she's given a signal to the people that forcing your daughter into marriage is a crime."

For decades, Germany looked the other way when it came to what was considered the private business of immigrant families. But fears about a "parallel society," extremism and lack of integration have led to a tougher stance, especially when it comes to basics such as respecting women's rights and learning German.

Several courts have upheld state-level bans on headscarves for Muslim women teaching in public schools. Additionally, immigration laws now require that foreign spouses be at least 18 years old and already have a basic knowledge of the German language.

Women's groups and people who study immigrant society said it is difficult to tell how many women marry under threats, beatings or coercion, but there are enough to keep several shelters busy and several immigrant writers have chronicled their escape from such marriages.

The impetus behind pressure to marry is found in conservative families' opposition to Western, secular ways such as dating and premarital sex - considered affronts to family honor.

Such pressures are also behind so-called honor killings by family members such as brothers or husbands. The Federal Crime Office counted 55 such cases from 1996 to 2005.

Several German states and private organizations have started programs to help these women.

One of them, a 20-year-old Turkish-German woman who ran away from home because her parents wanted to marry her to a cousin she had only met once, now lives in Berlin with a new identity, out of fear her family might track her down.

"After they found out I had a boyfriend, they locked me up in my room and beat me up every day for a month," said the woman, who now uses the name Rojin Dogan. "They wanted to sew the tear in my hymen and quickly marry me to my cousin - they wanted to make him believe that I am still a virgin."

Dogan was rescued by "Hatun und Can" - a private organization named after the Turkish-German woman Hatun Surucu who was shot and killed for her Western lifestyle in 2005. The group of 23 volunteers says it has helped 75 women since its founding in February.

Dogan contacted them online. A few days later days later they picked her up by car, brought her to Berlin and provided her with an apartment and a new job as a cashier.

The states of Lower Saxony, Baden-Wuerttemberg and Berlin have started state-sponsored hot lines, online counseling and shelters. North Rhine-Westphalia has made it mandatory for all high school students to be taught that forced marriage is a crime in Germany.

Baden-Wuerttemberg has launched a proposal for federal legislation that has yet to be taken up by parliament - and women's activists were hopeful that Merkel's push would accelerate the process.

A dedicated forced marriage unit in Britain handles 5,000 complaints a year, with around 300 suspected cases investigated, ministers said, reflecting dual-nationality Britons - often with ties to Pakistan or India. But lawmakers decided in July not to create any new criminal offense.

In the Netherlands, a study found no numbers but suggested the practice was rare and becoming less frequent.

Gulay Kizilocak, deputy director of the Center for Turkish Studies at the University of Essen, said that "it is important that we distinguish between forced marriage and arranged marriages."

"Not every arranged marriage is forced - most of the time the groom and the bride agree to their families' plans to marry them," she said. "Of course it is important to do something against forced marriage on the legislative level, but prevention is just as important. We need to tell immigrant boys and girls from an early age what their rights are."

Turkish-German writer Serap Cileli, who wrote the book "We Are Your Daughters, Not Your Honor" about her own escape from a forced marriage at age 24, welcomed Merkel's initiative but added it was important to address the immigrant community directly.

"As long as we don't teach the fathers, husbands and brothers to let the women live self-determined lives, this wound will never stop bleeding," Cileli said.

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