Forced marriage an emerging problem in Australia despite laws, welfare groups say

Hundreds of women in Australia are still being forced into marriage despite the practice being made illegal just over a year ago, Victorian welfare groups have said.

Laws passed by the Labor government in 2013 made it illegal to coerce, threaten or deceive someone into marriage.

And while Victorian authorities have yet to prosecute anyone under the new laws, forced marriage has been described as an emerging problem in Australia and many cases are thought to go unreported.

Meanwhile, a report from Plan International Australiahas found there were 250 cases of children being forced into marriage in the past two years.

The charity said it was difficult to say whether the marriages were taking place in Australia, or if they were being flown to other countries for the ceremony then returning home, because it is largely under-reported.

Two years ago a 16-year-old Afghan refugee, who wants to be known as Ayan because she fears for her safety, was flown to Pakistan for a family holiday and forced to marry a man whom she had never met.

“When I went there everything just happened so quickly,” she said.

“When I signed the marriage paper I had no knowledge of the fact that it was the marriage paper.” 

She did not speak the same dialect as her husband so they could not communicate.

She was kept in Pakistan for four months.

“For that period of time it was just torture for me because no one was listening to me.”

Ayan is now divorced, but only after a stand-off with her family that lasted years.

“I was a shame to them. I was going to be ostracised,” she said.

“Usually what happens is the parent will take the girl overseas and the expectation is that the girl will return being married.

“It was the first time ever in my family anyone had refused like I did.”

“But that didn’t really matter because I knew that one day my parents would look at me and thank me for not letting them destroy my soul.”

Girls to be taught forced marriage is wrong

The welfare group Good Shepherd regularly sees victims of forced marriage at its offices in Melbourne, mostly women dealing with domestic violence.

Good Shepherd chief executive officer Robyn Roberts said it was an emerging problem.

“It’s really hard for us to understand at this stage the scope and scale of forced marriage in Australia,” Ms Roberts said.

“But certainly anecdotal evidence is suggesting that it’s prevalent in the community.”

The federal police have investigated more than a dozen cases of forced marriage, most involving teenage girls.

Under Commonwealth legislation introduced a year ago, those involved in organising a forced marriage, including family members and wedding planners, face up to seven years in jail if convicted.

In New South Wales a 62-year-old man is due to stand trial accused of consenting to the marriage of his 12-year-old daughter.

It is alleged the man consented to his daughter’s religious marriage to a 26-year-old Lebanese national and they were illegally married by a Muslim cleric in the lounge room of the father’s home in January.

In Victoria, police have yet to lay any charges under the new laws, but Victoria Police Superintendent Rod Jouning said several cases had been investigated.

“We know that it’s grossly under-reported and many of these types of incidents occur within a family environment,” he said.

Victoria Police is developing a state-wide training program so officers can tackle the problem.

“It hasn’t started yet but it will do and hopefully will cover every member of this organisation,” Superintendent Jouning said.

The police training program will be rolled out later this year.

It is a move Ayan would welcome.

She said more education is needed so that victims of forced marriage realise that what is happened to them is wrong.

“With the culture we are supposed to be docile. We are supposed to listen to our parents because they are older and know what’s best for us,” she said.

“But I felt [it was] very wrong. Like how is it right to force me to sleep in the same room with someone who I hardly know and can’t speak to?”
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