Forced marriage. Yes, it happens here.

by Peter Magee on April 2, 2012

Peter Magee

In an article by Caroline Overington, published in the Weekend Australian on 11 February 2012, “The Wedding Vow”, the issue of forced marriage in relation to children is discussed.

A large portion of the article focuses on an interview Overington had with Dr Emran Sharobeen, who herself was promised to her cousin from the age of 14 years.

Among other things, the article discusses the fact that there is no actual law punishing those who try to arrange a wedding between children or to force a child into marriage. Currently, the law in Australia says that the legal age for marriage is 18, although if one party is at least 18, the other party may be as young as 16, as long as a Court Order is obtained from a Judge or Magistrate and there has been consent from both parents.

However, although marriage cannot be legally performed in Australia for those under 18 years apart from the above circumstances, some children are flown out of Australia overseas to marry.

Currently the Federal Government is considering draft legislation, released for public discussion last December, which calls for forced marriage to be an offence, as it is for example, in England. The draft legislation proposes that there be an aggravated offence carrying the maximum sentence of 15 years in prison for the forced marriage of a child.

However, there have been some cases where the Australian Family Law Act has been used to indirectly prevent the forced marriage of a child. For example, the article discusses a case, where a girl told her teacher at a Melbourne High School that “she wouldn’t be attending class any more, as she was due to travel overseas to be married”. The girl was aged 13 at the time and the teacher contacted the Victorian Department of Human Services. The Department used the Family Law Act to make an Application in the Federal Magistrates Court that the child’s name be placed on an Airport Watch List so that her parents would not be able to remove her from Australia.

Frequently, Applications are made in Family Law matters that a child’s name be placed on the Airport Watch List when there is a risk that the other parent may remove them to another country. However, Airport Watch List Applications are also being used by the Department of Human Services to prevent children being removed overseas for marriage.

While this may arguably be one way in which the situation can be addressed, it is a round about, rather than direct remedy to the problem. Also it is not a deterrent to being involved in organising child marriages.

However, the issue is arguably not entirely clear cut. Sydney University Academic, Dr Ghena Krayen points out that criminalising forced marriages may “break the relationship between the girl and her parents” and proposes that if the forced marriage issue does arise, the “best approach is a holistic one involving the girl, parents and respected community leaders”.

Krayen also makes the important point that in becoming concerned with the issue of forced marriage, forced marriage should not be confused with arranged marriage. She rightly points out that “in many cultures people are recommended to each other”. However, Krayen also says that obviously consent needs to be given by both parties. The Muslim Legal Network has said that they would prefer the issue be dealt with by way of civil rather than criminal provisions.

My view is that obviously this is not simply a legal issue. I agree that there should be more education, in particular for girls in schools as they approach the age where they may be forced into a marriage. I also think there should be more options available to girls where they are being forced into an arranged marriage, such as a hotline for girls who need advice and other education programs, as Dr Sharobeen suggests.

However, arguably this is needed alongside some harsher criminal sanctions which will provide the message that forcing a child to take part in an underage marriage against their will is simply not acceptable. The difficulty is not just that a child is being married, but also the other related issues such as for example, the fact that this may often be tied to family violence and pregnancy of young teenage girls.

The article outlined several other cases, including where a child herself called the Australian Federal Police saying that she was being taken against her will to be married in Lebanon. In most of the other cases mentioned in this article, it has been the child that has somehow alerted a teacher or other person that they are being forced into the marriage. This shows that the child was only able to be helped when they had the courage to speak out against what was happening to them. This suggests that part of the solution may be in educating children about these issues and their rights, as well as amending laws which allow the Judiciary to more effectively deal with the problem.

If you believe you may be forced into a marriage against your will, you can get help by calling the Australian Federal Police on 000,  Lifeline on 13 11 14 or  the Child Protection Helpline on 13 21 11.

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