• Each year 14 million girls are forced into marriage according to the children's charity Plan (AAP)
It's now a year since forced marriage became illegal in Australia but some advocates say we are still a long way from preventing the practice in Australia.
By
Widyan Al Ubudy

6 Mar 2014 - 5:59 PM  UPDATED 6 Mar 2014 - 7:49 PM

Each year 14 million girls are forced into marriage according to the children's charity Plan. While it often occurs in African and South Asian countries, it's still an issue in Australia.

Forced marriage has been illegal in Australia for 12 months, following amendments to the Slavery Act last year.

The Slavery Act now recognises forced marriage as a serious form of exploitation and is punishable with up to seven years imprisonment. 

Dr Eman Sharobeem was forced to marry when she was 15 years old. She's since devoted her life to helping others avoid the same fate.

Speaking at a forum at the NSW parliament, she says simply changing the law isn't enough.

"I didn't see it yet. I didn't see the change," she said.

"I didn't see that having a piece of... some words embedded in legislation changed the community understanding."

“My call is about education and learning, not to see the parents of the victim locked up behind bars. I’m happy that we have changes to the legislation but at the same time we need to tackle the issue from its core."

"We need to engage and educate gatekeepers, religious leaders and communities.”

Dr Saroja Srinivasam is a clinical physiologist. She agrees that more education is needed to empower young girls.

“Education on forced marriage needs to be done in schools. Children, particularly young girls, need to be taught about their human rights and issues that breach them.”

Community leaders also urged for education at a grassroots level.

Executive Officer at the United Muslim Women’s Association and long-time Muslim community advocate, Maha Abdo says the key is schools and religious leaders.

“Most people see their faith as their backbone… while you’ve got religious leaders and they are a point of reference, it’s early intervention that we’re talking about," she said.

"It’s making sure the community owns the education and works with it. It needs to begin with the school, inside the curriculum so the family and community is educated.”

One member in attendance, who wished to remain anonymous, shared her experience with forced marriage. She stressed that religious leaders who come to Australia and give sermons need to be educated on the laws surrounding forced marriage.

She says, “I am a survivor of forced marriage and I was always told by religious leaders to listen to my parents but they don’t understand the laws they need to be informed that it is wrong.”

Dr Sharobeem also highlighted what she called, “community violence”, where victims who speak up are confronted with backlash from their respective communities.

She says there needs to be a bilingual hotline where victims who don’t speak English can converse with people who speak their native tongue.

“They need people who speak their language but we also have to keep in mind the appropriateness of the culture… they need to understand the culture not just interpret," she said.

"Being a bilingual person able to communicate with the communities at risk taught me personally that we have a revolving door of educated people to engage with the communities.”