The U.S. Department of State's highest priority overseas is the protection and welfare of American citizens. It considers the issue of forced marriage to be a violation of basic human rights and a form of child abuse. Often, victims are subjected to non-consensual sex, physical and emotional abuse, isolation, and threats of violence. International law and conventions also support an individual's right to self-determination, minimum marriage ages and the rejection of abuse of women and honor-based violence.
Arranged marriages are a long-standing tradition in many cultures and countries. The Department respects this tradition and makes a very clear distinction between a forced and an arranged marriage. In arranged marriages, the families of both spouses take a leading role in the arrangement but the choice whether to consent remains with the individuals. In a forced marriage, at least one party does not consent to the marriage and some element of duress or coercion is generally present.
In Kuwait, marriages are legal, written contracts based on either Sharia or a Western model, depending on the religion of the individuals involved. Kuwait only recognizes marriages within the Muslim, Christian and Jewish faiths and has separate requirements for each. Persons of other faiths cannot marry in Kuwait. Regardless of religion, by law a bride must be at least 15 years of age and the groom at least 17 years of age to marry. Brides must explicitly consent to the marriage. A Muslim groom may take a non-Muslim bride, but a Muslim bride must marry a Muslim groom. Proxy marriages are allowed if a specific power of attorney is obtained which clearly states the bride’s consent.
Kuwait is an Islamic country with generally conservative traditions and expectations. Most marriages are still arranged by family heads between families in accordance with cultural traditions and intermarriage within cousins, clans and social classes occur. Muslim women, regardless of age, need a male guardian’s permission to marry. Brides often marry young by western standards; 33 percent of first-time brides are between the ages of 15-19 and 40 percent are between 20-24 years of age.
Women continue to experience legal, economic, and social discrimination in Kuwait. Sharia courts discriminate against women in judicial proceedings, freedom of movement, marriage and inheritance rights. The law does not specifically prohibit domestic violence, although victims may file a complaint with police and the abusers can be charged with assault. Arrests and prosecution for domestic abuse are uncommon due to a strong cultural and social bias in favor of seeking to resolve such issues within the family. A woman may petition for divorce based on injury from abuse, but the law does not provide a clear legal standard as to what constitutes injury. In addition, a woman must provide at least two male witnesses (or a male witness and two female witnesses) to attest to the injury suffered. Abusive husbands, if convicted, rarely face severe penalties. Honor crimes are prohibited; however, the penal code reduces penalties for such crimes to misdemeanors with a maximum prison sentence of three years. There are no government-sanctioned shelters in Kuwait for victims of domestic violence or hot lines to assist such victims.
If you are a U.S. citizen in Kuwait and facing a forced marriage or find yourself in an abusive situation, or know someone who is, contact the local authorities and the U.S. Embassy. Please see the Country Specific Information for locations and contact information.