Forced marriage in Australia: Pt 2

Migrant community leaders are being urged to help raise awareness that forced marriage has been made illegal in Australia.

Migrant community leaders are being urged to work closely with service providers and law enforcement authorities to raise awareness about forced marriages in Australia.


It comes after the Australian Parliament passed legislation criminalising the practice.


Migrant and women's groups say ethnic communities affected by forced marriage need to begin talking openly about the issue.


But they say those working with them must also understand the values underpinning family relationships and the rite of marriage in different cultures.


Kristina Kukolja as more in the second of a two-part series on forced marriages in Australia.


"Probably what we know is the tip of the iceberg, so whatever we think we know, I would say it's probably times ten.//It's something that not only affects the victim or not only affects the schools, not only affects the community, it affects everyone.// I don't want the government or the law enforcement agencies to deal with this heavily handed because I know it could, based on my background and experience, it may backfire."


Changes to federal laws mean that a person believed to have forced another person to marry against their will can be charged with a criminal offence and, if convicted, jailed for up to seven years.


A friend or family member found to have helped facilitate a forced marriage can also now be prosecuted under Commonwealth law.


Migrant and women's service providers say the Parliament's decision is a step in the right direction, but comes at a time when very little is still known about the actual extent of forced marriage in Australia.


They say data is largely anecdotal and gathered independently by various non-government organisations, from state to state.


Some insight can be gleaned from cases taken to the Family Court; for example, young girls who've pursued legal action to prevent them from being sent overseas to be married.


Tina Jelinic is a project officer with the End Forced Child Marriage project at the National Children's and Youth Law Centre in Sydney.


She says Family Court data provides merely a glimpse into forced marriages in Australia.


"Family Court decisions have been those where girls have been put on airport watch lists and they've sort of wanted to prevent themselves being sent overseas usually for the purposes of a marriage. So, they are very interesting and they reveal that legal aspect, but that is just one aspect of forced child marriage. Not all victims come forward, not all of them seek legal redress, so these are sort of particular representations of the issue and our research shows a much broader range of responses and options."


In New South Wales and Victoria, some migrant and women's service providers have turned their attention to reports of high school girls from certain ethnic communities being prepared for marriage.


These include girls of Middle Eastern backgrounds from countries such as Lebanon and Turkey, as well as others from South Asia.


Sydney psychologist Dr Eman Sharobeem is the manager of the Immigrant Women's Health Service and a vocal activist against forced marriage.


She says despite becoming engaged to a man at the age of 14, she doesn't believe her parents' choice of a husband for her was motivated by an intent to harm.


She says it's important to understand that forced marriage is a long-standing cultural practice brought to Australia, not unique to any particular religion.


According to Dr Sharobeem, it can also be driven by fear of a new and foreign environment.


"I do have a case where the father came to me with a 14-year-old pregnant young married girl to say: I'm just here to tell you our good news, thank god our daughter got married and we're celebrating her and now she is pregnant. So, yes it is celebrated in some other cultures and some other religions, but we can't really talk about specific religion, it just happens as a cultural norm. It happens widely because of the fear that the particular girl will go out, will date, will have sex out of marriage and will bring shame to the family, it is the fear that the girl will go out and date even without any sexual practice as a result of this date, it is the fear for the family honour."


The Victorian Immigrant and Refuge Women's Coalition's Safa Abdul says many women may not be aware of the new laws, and they could in fact have an unintended effect.


"This could possibly put them into more isolation. It would come across as too aggressive for them because you have to put yourself in the mentality of the victim and their shoes. How would you, if you were in such a specific family from such a specific background at a certain age -- you have to take the age as a factor, imagine you're 15 years old and all of these things are happening and then you hear that it's been criminalised and possibly members of my family can go to prison for seven years."


The Salvation Army operates a safe house for women in New South Wales.


Among the residents are women classified as victims of forced marriage.


Jenny Stanger, who runs the facility, says she hopes the criminalisation of forced marriage in Australia will generate more exposure for the issue.


And, in turn, pave the way for better services for those who choose to seek help.


"It's a very traumatic experience for people to leave their families and to leave their community. It's very distressing, it's very traumatic. It's a really difficult decision. They need a lot of support; they need immediate support around the grief and loss of their family. They have to reinvent their lives, reinvent their identity to a certain extent and they have some very tricky decisions to make -- particularly around legal actions that they may or may not want to take against their own family. For young people in particular these are really big decisions that require a lot of support."


Service providers say another category of victims of forced marriage who shouldn't be forgotten, are women who come to Australia from abroad under spousal or other visas.


Maja Avdibegovic is CEO of In Touch, a migrant women's service in Melbourne.


Ms Avdibegovic says the exact number of forced marriage cases in these categories is difficult to ascertain, but the safe house has accepted women seeking to escape domestic violence, who report having been forced into marriage.


She says they've been from countries in Africa, South Asia, and even central and eastern Europe.


These women, she says, are in a particularly difficult position when wanting to seek help.


"They're on their own. They don't have anyone else that they know in the country apart from their partner or their husband. They don't know the language, they don't know the system. There are no social networks that can support them. They're very isolated and very vulnerable. For them even to step up and ask for support, that's a big step."


Ms Avdibegovic says the main problem for women, potential victims of forced marriage, without permanent residency is the uncertainty surrounding their immigration status.


This, she says, can play into the hands of a possibly abusive partner.


"It puts them in an even better position to be even more controlling that they can manipulate them really easily. There are always threats that they could be easily deported because they don't have enough information about their rights here in Australia. So, it actually gives perpetrators more control."


In Melbourne, the Indian community has been identified as one migrant group in which forced marriages occur.


Family resolution dispute practitioner, Dr Reeta Verma says she expects some resistance from members to the new legislation.


"Parents will say that, well this was for the best of both families, this is the best partner they could have, so you are misjudging our judgment about this marriage. So, that's where the community, especially the community leaders, need to know that they have to inform the community that when the marriage happens the marriage has to be between two partners who are freely and voluntarily giving their consent to get into that relationship."


Several years ago, the federal government called for submissions to a discussion paper on forced and servile marriages, which it drew upon in creating the new laws.


One of submissions came from the Muslim Legal Network, a national body representing Muslim lawyers in Australia, which supports criminalisation of forced marriage.


A member of the Network's committee, solicitor Mohamed Ragab, says Islam requires consent for partners to enter into marriage, but many Muslim communities in Australia tolerate forced marriages.


He describes it as a problem and says authorities and service providers must tread carefully when trying to break through to these communities.


Mr Ragab sees an opportunity for young Muslims to play a part.


"I would be careful enforcing this (the new law criminalising forced marriage) or imposing this on a community. I don't want the government of the law enforcement agencies to deal with this heavily handed because I know it could, based on my background and experience, it may backfire and that's why I am saying it should be introduced first and hopefully many of the young educated Muslims in Australia would take on the issue and will accept it and therefore could spread even more."


Family dispute resolutions practitioner Reeta Verma says religious and ethnic community leaders should lead by example in cooperating with external groups working to raise awareness about forced marriage.


"Community leaders have to come out of their closet and come of out of their comfort zone and say that now there is a new law here we are as parents we have responsibilities that sure enough you can arrange a marriage for your child for the best interest of your child, but at the same time, you must make sure there is a free and voluntary consent by both parties before the marriage happens. So these laws can only work if the community knows about them, and the community works in consensus with and on the same lines with the police and authorities. So, police have been given the wider powers under the new laws, but police have to reach out to the communities and ask what way they can help to make this issue an issue which needs to be debated in the community openly."


The National Children's and Youth Law Centre hopes it can contribute to bridging the gap between authorities, service providers and migrant communities affected by forced marriages.


The NSW-based group is preparing to release the first national report on forced marriage in Australia.


To this end it's surveyed hundreds of federal and state, and non-government organisations, as well as practitioners and case workers who've come into contact with the practice.


Spokeswoman Tina Jelinic says the report will offer best practice guidelines relating to forced marriage -- particularly for social workers and counsellors, government and law enforcement officers, as well as lawyers and migrant community groups.


She says it's also expected to feature material for children and young people detailing their rights and responsibilities under Australian law.


Tina Jelinic.


"The issue has been happening and case workers have been encountering it, but there hasn't been too much of an avenue to express what's been happening, there's a lot of frameworks around violence against women, domestic violence, trafficking and so on, but there hasn't been a clear and distinct avenue through which to voice the experience of forced marriage because it doesn't necessarily fit neatly within those distinct frameworks, even though of course it cuts across them, so I think there hasn't been a unified coordinated effort or avenue through which caseworkers can come forward and contribute."


The Victorian Immigrant and Refuge Women's Coalition is developing printed materials for distribution to high school girls from affected migrant communities.


It's also working to bring together community leaders, schools and service providers to discuss forced marriage and its recent criminalisation.


Later this year, it will present an analysis of its research at a United Nations women's round table event in Canberra, and to the federal government.


Spokeswoman Safa Abdul says there's a need for open discussion about the issue.


"It's something that not only affects the victim or not only affects the schools, not only affects the community, it affects everyone. So, if there is a case of a forced marriage, it's something that's gonig to affect all these members and all the members who are affected should come together to an understanding and not just an understanding, but a point of communication to see each other's perspective, to see what are the school's concerns, what do the schools think, what do the schools encounter in terms of obstacles. Maybe if those obstacles are possibly overcome by service providers then there's a success."


That ends Part Two of a special two-part series.


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