Strategy to tackle child marriages angers women’s health expert

Eman Sharobeem says leaving Immigrant Women’s Health Service out of human trafficking and slavery talks is a betrayal

The director of the Immigrant Women’s Health Service says she feels “deceived, attacked and ignored” by the commitment of almost $500,000 in federal government funding toward religious and academic organisations to address the issue of child marriages in Australia.

Dr Eman Sharobeem is an expert in working with women and children forced into marriages and has spent almost a decade working on the frontline with victims and their families.

She feels betrayed because her organisation was left off the federal government’s National Roundtable on Human Trafficking and Slavery, despite politicians frequently asking her advice on how to tackle forced marriages, she said.

The Roundtable led to the announcement on Monday of more than $60,000 for the Australian Catholic Religious Against Trafficking in Humans [Acrath] to develop a curriculum on forced marriages in schools; almost $70,000 for the Australian Muslim Women’s Centre for Human Rights to develop an education program for young women and families on forced marriage; and more than $350,000 for Anti-Slavery Australia to expand its legal advice service service for people facing forced marriage.

Acrath spokeswoman Christine Carolan said over the past few years her organisation had developed an educational resource on human trafficking which had been trialled with more than 50 teachers.

“We have now been given a grant to expand our education resource to include the issue of forced marriage,” she said. “This is a small pilot program that will provide resources for others to expand upon and disseminate more widely.

But Sharobeem, who has worked with the United Nations on womens and childrens rights, said the Immigrant Women’s Health Service was the first and foremost organisation for identifying and supporting victims of forced marriage.

“We have been working on the frontline with no federal government support, despite the awareness campaigns we have been involved in and the number of cases reported by the mass media,” Sharobeem, who herself was forced into marriage at 14, said.

“In the last two weeks I have had more than 75 inquiries from people concerned about a forced marriage for themselves or someone they know of.

“We are running on oily rag. I’ve been working out of my own pocket and time, and I have never put my extra hours on paper because I am driven by my passion and commitment towards these women.

“I am driven by evidence about what works. To hear about this funding – I feel deceived, I feel attacked, I feel ignored.”

Anti-Slavery Australia director, Associate Professor Jennifer Burn, has authored books on human trafficking and said her organisation has a decade-long track record in forced marriage research, education, and community engagement. The organisation provided comprehensive legal advice to victims, she said, and already had strong networks in the community.

“We welcome the funding provided by the Australian government to develop a dedicated website containing key information and research about forced marriage and to establish an evidence-based national legal response for any person in Australia in or facing forced marriage,” she said.

“The funding will allow us to build on existing expertise and national networks to make sure that there is a swift legal response and appropriate referral to other organisations who can meet needs such as housing, healthcare, education, and employment assistance.”

A spokesman for the Attorney General’s department told Guardian Australia that all of the funded organisations had a proven track record in collaborating with the Australian government on forced marriage issues, with the specialisation to deliver projects which filled identified gaps in service delivery and awareness-raising on forced marriage.

“The department would welcome Dr Sharobeem’s engagement on this issue,” he said.

Sharobeem said she was frustrated that cries for help were increasing while resources were being stretched thin.

One such cry for help shown to Guardian Australia came from a paramedic, who wrote to Sharobeem saying: “I feel at times if I could speak the languages these women speak or they had a way to communicate to us they would ask for help. We are not really sure what we should be looking for when it comes to child brides or certain abuse etc. We could really do with your assistance.”

“The number one thing I would have done with the money is educate the people who can help these women get equipped and ready to deal with their situations,” Sharobeem said.

“I don’t want to sound like I’m angry because of a sum of dollars. I am angry because I have been with this organisation working for and managing women in difficult situations, saving young women’s futures and lives.

“We have been putting our own lives and safety on the line to be able to educate and alert the Australian community, politicians, and decision-makers about issues affecting women and girls and when it comes to resources, we have next to nothing.”

Sharobeem, a NSW government 2013 Women of the year finalist, said she would have used the funding to train a range of people including health workers, police officers, teachers and community workers to identify child marriage cases and refer children on for support.

She would also train bilingual health and community workers, she said, adding her organisation was at an advantage because they had already built strong relationships of trust with the community across cultures, religions and languages.

“One-hundred percent I would put my two PhDs on the table to say we would have made best use of the funding,” she said.

“The number of cases I have ahead of me now, the number of email inquiries, the calls for education programs in various schools from every state around the nation are all clear indications of what we need to do.”

On Monday, a joint report from child rights organisation Plan International Australia and Anti-Slavery Australia said 14 million children under 18 are married each year worldwide.

Plan International Australia CEO, Ian Wishart, said data from the National Children’s and Youth Law Centre revealed about 250 cases of child marriage in Australia in the past couple of years.

The young children were often taken overseas and married to much older men, he said, before being brought back to Australia. Sometimes the marriages occurred illegally in Australia.

Australian authorities became aware of the cases when the girls became pregnant and entered the health system, he said, or sometimes they were beaten and abused and came to the attention of authorities that way. Other times, teachers reported their concern when a student suddenly dropped out of school.

“Many girls in these situations may not be aware of the options they have for help, they’re at a young age and still learning about society and can feel very isolated within their family,” he said.

“It is important to identify potential cases of forced marriage before they happen, before it becomes a legal case.

“If a young girl can seek a supportive person who can help her have a conversation with her parents about what is happening, that is much better than reaching a point where legal action needs to be taken to prevent her from going overseas, and her parents are punished.

“While that punishment is necessary and appropriate in those cases, it is much better to nip this in the bud before it gets to that stage.”

Only a small number of forced marriage cases had been brought to the attention of Australian authorities, with anecdotal evidence suggesting it was an under-reported crime.

Since the introduction of the forced marriage offence into the Commonwealth Criminal Code in March 2013, the Australian federal police had received 13 referrals for suspected forced marriage matters, with 12 involving victims under the age of 18.
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