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“My battles are immense,” said one ultra-Orthodox Jewish woman from England whom Unchained is helping. The woman moved to the United States with her husband, to whom she was married for 10 years. Now separated from the man who, she said, abused her, the 32-year-old woman, has been diagnosed with cancer. Surviving an experience like this “is about finding that one person that you can fall back on,” said the woman, who spoke only on condition of anonymity. “Fraidy’s that person.”
Unchained set her up with a divorce attorney from an experienced law firm. The attorney took on her case pro bono. But that was just the beginning. When the woman had trouble getting to the hospital from her home on Long Island, Reiss raised money to help her buy a used car. “I actually sleep at night,” the woman said. “There are other people fighting — really fighting — for my case.”
Unchained also lobbies for legislation. Recently, Reiss collaborated with New Jersey Senate Majority Leader Loretta Weinberg to draft a law that would enable women to access their own crime victim records for free, so that they can use them as proof in order to obtain final restraining orders.
Unchained depends largely on donations of time from volunteers and on money from individual donors. But its startup was made possible by the Good People Fund, a Jewish organization that gives grants to not-for-profits that have budgets of less than $500,000. Unchained’s budget for 2012 was $20,000. The organization does not yet have a full-time staff, but it has managed to help more than 40 women in New Jersey and New York this year, according to Reiss.
Naomi Eisenberger, who founded the Good People Fund, also provides mentorship throughout the startup phase. Her determination to back Unchained was driven in part by the broad spectrum of women from different backgrounds that Reiss’s group serves. Reiss is “raising awareness of the fact that arranged marriages occur in many cultures, not just in the Jewish community,” Eisenberger said.
A 2011 study — the first of its kind in the United States — conducted by the Tahirih Justice Center of people most likely to be first responders to cases of forced marriage, including law enforcement authorities, legal service providers and social workers, reported nearly 3,000 suspected cases of forced marriage in the United States, involving individuals from 56 different countries.
There may be even more than that. Fewer than 10% of those surveyed agreed that their agency had a working definition of forced marriage, and only 22% said that their agency’s screening process enabled them to properly identify instances of forced marriage.