"Women and children in polygamous communities in the U.S. are suffering daily from human rights violations that the perpetrators claim are justified by their religious beliefs," said Laura Chapman, director of the Colorado-based Polygamy Justice Project. "No religious belief excuses the reality."
The groups will be focusing on communities in Utah and surrounding states, due to the estimated 30,000 polygamous family members in this area. In the 19th century, polygamy was practiced by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints but it was discontinued in 1890 as a condition of statehood. Utah became the 45th state in 1896.
Human rights groups are also looking into the status of women in international communities, including those Muslim communities which allow polygamy.
News media and activist sources have documented a pattern of abuse against women and girls in polygamous families involving violence, child marriage, trafficking, coerced marriage of adult women, sexual abuse and incest, said Donna Sullivan of the International Human Rights Clinic at New York University School of Law.
Sullivan has spent her career as a human rights lawyer and sees these abuses as similar to what is happening to women and children in religious fundamentalist groups in countries such as Afghanistan.
"These polygamy-related abuses violate international human rights that the U.S. has legal obligations to ensure," Sullivan said.
The Polygamy Justice Project, International Human Rights Clinic and the Child Protection Project are calling for immediate action by state and federal officials to investigate and prosecute polygamy- related abuses and to review and amend existing state legislation related to marriage, child custody and support, property and eligibility for social services. The groups also are urging free legal assistance and shelters for women who leave polygamous relationships, and education for social workers, law enforcement officials and the public about human rights as they apply to abuses within polygamous families.
"From a human rights perspective, the priority needs to be on finding out what's going on within polygamous families and stopping the violations that are occurring," Sullivan said in a telephone interview from New York City.
Anne Wilde, co-author of Voices in Harmony: Contemporary Women Celebrate Plural Marriage, has no problem with any group exposing abuses in polygamous families.
And if women and/or children want to leave a polygamous family or community, they should have help and mentors.
"If they have been born and raised in it, they are often isolated, taught to separate themselves from family members," she said. "To me, that's terrible."
But polygamy at its best offers women more independence and freedom to develop their talents, Wilde said.
That was not Chapman's experience.
She said she was raised in a polygamous family in Hildale, Utah, where she was pulled out of public schools at 11 and married off to a stranger at 18. When her husband married a 16-year-old in 1991, she fled with her five children.
Chapman now works as a child abuse investigator in Colorado, but her dream is to build a "safe house" and provide mentors for women and children who want to leave polygamy.
She is scheduled to address a meeting of the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women in March.
"There are strong similarities between some of the beliefs in women's subordination among polygamists in Utah and surrounding states and the question of the status of women in other regions of the world," Sullivan said. "We've now launched an international campaign, sending our action alert to 400 women's and children's rights groups around the world. It is important for government officials to know the world is watching."