Call for education about forced marriage law

Advocates against forced marriage say more community education is needed about a law banning the practice.

While forced marriage often occurs in African and South Asian countries, it’s still also an issue in Australia.

Forced marriage has been illegal in Australia for 12 months, after amendments were made to the federal Slavery Act last year.

Although advocates against forced marriage have praised the legal move, they say it doesn’t go far enough and are calling for an education campaign for communities and in schools.

Widyan Al-Ubudy reports.

Children’s charity Plan says 14-million girls worldwide are forced into marriage each year – that’s one girl every two seconds.

The Slavery Act was amended in February last year and now recognises forced marriage as a serious form of exploitation, punishable with up to seven years imprisonment.

Director of the Immigrant Women’s Health Service in Sydney, Dr Eman Sharobeem, was forced to marry when she was 15-years-old.

She’s since dedicated her life to supporting victims of forced marriage.

She says changing the law is welcome, but not enough.

“Instead of seeing people behind bars, and I’m happy that we have changes in our legislation and I’m hoping that the legislation will come forward and will be applied soon. But at the same time we need to tackle the issue from its core. We need to come forward to our communities and leaders, engage stakeholders, engage gatekeepers and different organisations and say clearly that it is our call to re-educate the community about the appropriate dealings with our second generation, whether girls or boys.”

Opponents of forced marriage say education against the practice is needed at a grassroots level, especially in those communities where it’s viewed as a cultural norm.

Vice-President of the Australian Afghan Hassanian Youth Association Bibi Cioul Mossavi works with victims of forced marriage.

She says education for parents is imperative in combating forced marriage and shifting the community’s mentality away from acceptance of the practice.

“Sometimes parents are pressured by the community. There is this fear of young girls running off with a white boy, so they must intervene before that happens and you know sometimes take them overseas to get them married.”

Dr Eman Sharobeem highlights what she calls “community violence”, where people who speak up face a backlash from members of their own ethnic group.

She’s calling for a bilingual hotline where victims of forced marriage who don’t speak English can converse with people who speak their native tongue.

But she says victims need support from people who understand the cultural practices.

“This is why we’re saying bilingual and by the way I’m not saying bilingual as translators or interpreters. We have to put in mind that there is the appropriateness of the culture, it has to be addressed here. If I have an interpreter doing the interpretation, the essence of the conversation is not going to be embedded in the learning. I am leading an organisation where we have more than 30 staff members, each one of them is speaking a language in a dialect from different communities and each one of them is powerful enough to engage with the community. That’s why I invested my time with them.”

Advocates say the blurring of cultural and religious practices places an importance on the role of religious leaders across multi-faith communities.

They say religious leaders should also be educated on Australian laws surrounding forced marriage and deliver the message to their communities.

Sydney-based executive Officer of the United Muslim Women’s Association, Maha Abdo, says schools and religious leaders can play key roles.

“It’s about making sure that the community owns the education and really works with it. But it needs to begin with the school inside the curriculum because education starts at school so that it goes home and you educate the whole family as well as community. So while you’ve got community leaders and religious leaders doing that, you’ve got grassroots workers on the ground because it’s our duty of care to do that, as well as the education side of it at schools.”

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