Australia: Forced Underage Marriage Is Common

Forced marriages of underage girls might be commonplace in certain communities in Sydney, according to the NSW Minister for Community Services, Pru Goward, who spoke yesterday following the arrest of a 26-year-old man charged with 25 counts of sexual intercourse with a 13-year-old girl.

The man, who for legal reasons cannot be named, allegedly met the then 12-year-old in the Hunter region in 2012 and became involved in an ongoing sexual relationship with her, with the pair then allegedly moving to a house in Sydney’s southwest.

Police claim the man and child were married in a religious ceremony last month. Appearing in court yesterday speaking through an Arabic-language interpreter, he made no application for bail, which was formally refused.

It is believed that the case came to light when the girl went to Centrelink seeking assistance for the man to obtain a visa.

Centrelink notified the Department of Community Services and the police and the girl was removed and put into care.

Ms Goward said she was horrified by the case. “I think we are all extremely distressed, and I expect the full force of the law will be brought in this case.

“The message is very simple. Whatever the cultural practice, whatever the religious practice, there is no law in Australia above Australian law.

“In this country, little girls have rights, and in particular they have the right to their childhood free of this sort of abuse.”

Ms Goward said there were a significant number of unlawful, unregistered marriages to underage girls in NSW, underage forced marriages, but it was difficult to say how many as the practice was kept secret. “This is not an unknown practice and indeed might be quite common in particular areas of southwest Sydney, western Sydney and the Blue Mountains,” she said.

Figures from the 2011 census indicated that there were 604 de facto marriages in NSW among people born in Australia aged 14-17, while there were 63 de facto marriages of people aged 14-17 who were born overseas.

Ms Goward said: “We cannot solve this entirely by prosecutions, although a prosecution would clearly send a message to these communities that this is not acceptable in Australia.”

She added that the parents of girls who allowed underage marriages to go ahead could also face prosecution.

“In my view parents, or a parent, who conspire to enable their child to be unlawfully sexually assaulted and be the victim of sexual abuse in this way are absolutely culpable and the full force of the law must be bought to bear on them,” Ms Goward said. “If that is not possible, then we would need to look at reviewing the law.”

Eman Sharobeem from the Immigrant Women’s Health Service, who handles cases of arranged and forced marriages, called for an education campaign to stamp out the practice. Dr Sharobeem said new-immigrant communities were often ignorant of local laws and customs.

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