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Forced marriage in Australia: Part 1

on 15/02/2019

(Transcript from World News Australia Radio)

Anyone deemed to have forced another person into marriage now faces a maximum penalty of seven years in prison.


The new laws also encompass any third party whose conduct is found to have caused another person, identified as the victim, to enter into the union without consent.

This includes by way of coercion, threat or deception.

Migrant service providers have welcomed the move, but warn it has serious implications for a number of non-English speaking communities.

In the first in a two-part series, Kristina Kukolja takes a look at the issue of forced marriage in Australia.

“Marriage is something people don’t talk about. It’s not a topic which we discuss with our friends. Only the family knows it. So, very few people will come out and say: Our marriage happened that way. His father had a business contract with my father and both parents from both sides decided it would be a good idea to get me married to their son, and that way they would form a stronger business arrangement between both families. Basically, she lived in fear that if she [would] not accept this proposal, her mother would be beaten up and would be divorced, and she would be the cause of her mother entering that tunnel of pain.”

The United Nations has declared forced marriage a form of human rights abuse, but it’s a practice that’s still perpetuated in many countries around the world.

In Australia, migrant and women’s service providers are beginning to piece together a picture of how forced marriages are affecting the country’s migrant communities.

The Melbourne-based Victorian Immigrant and Refugee Women’s Coalition provides support and self-improvement programs for women of non-English speaking backgrounds, particularly refugees.

It says forced marriage is seen in communities originating in the Middle East, as well as in Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Pakistan and India.

Men are known to be among the victims, but cases involving women are much more widely reported.

The Immigrant Women’s Coalition says reasons for the practice vary, and include immigration and financial status.

Spokeswoman Safa Abdul says the organisation has seen cases in Victoria involving women of all ages, married abroad and in Australia.

She describes one of the more typical scenarios.

“You’re here in Australia and you’re an Australian citizen, but from a specific ethnic background, you have some relatives overseas and obviously they are still in their home country, or even family members because these communities live within a close-knit community. Let’s say your parents have these well-established connections back in their home country and then what ends up happening is that she (the young woman) would go back or be taken back saying “You have no choice, I am the father, I am the voice of authority.” They would be taken back to their home country, they get into a marriage there, come back into Australia and lodge a spousal visa, or whichever visa it would be — this is one simple scenario, it varies with each case. Even within Australia, it doesn’t necessarily have to be outside of Australia.”

Dr Reeta Verma is a lawyer and family dispute resolution practitioner for the Indian community in Melbourne.

She cautions against confusing forced marriages with arranged marriages, which are part of Indian culture, and permitted under Australian law.

Dr Verma says through her work she has encountered couples whose marriages have come about without the full consent of both parties.

But she says, in the Indian community in Australia it’s a taboo discussion topic.

“Marriage is something people don’t talk about. It is not a topic which we discuss with our friends — only the family knows about it — so very few people will come out and say: my marriage came about that way (forced). When the marriage happens, marriage is a marriage. So, we’ll find out whether the marriage is arranged or forced. So, as a family dispute resolution practitioner, I may find out whether the marriage is forced or arranged when I talk to the couple if there is a family dispute. We will find out at a very late stage because normally we are very secretive about our marriage.”

The Victorian Immigrant and Refugee Women’s Coalition recently analysed 200 domestic violence-related cases handled by one of its counselling programs over a two-year period.

It says at least 30 per cent were indentified as involving forced marriage.

The Coalition says the concentration of cases was found to be in Melbourne’s south-eastern suburbs.

Spokeswoman Safa Abdul says the organisation is liaising with authorities to document a link between domestic violence and forced marriage.

“The first thing that possibly happens, and from our counselling cases that we’ve identified is that there are a lot of cases of domestic violence and threats, and we’re trying to link that with forced marriages, because obviously if the marriage has been forced and there are a lot of disagreements in the marriage later on and a lot of issues arising such as financial issues, all sorts of issues, a lot of domestic violence happens. That is what we dealt with a lot. It’s different scenarios, but at the end of the day there’s always been an element of violence there.”

Safa Abdul says the Immigrant Women’s Coalition is now focusing its research in Melbourne on forced marriages among high school girls of migrant backgrounds.

She says increasing reports from schools indicate that girls as young as 14 are being prepared for marriage overseas, or even in Australia.

Ms Abdul says they’re turning to their teachers and school counsellors for help.

“Even when you look at studies overseas, for example in the UK [which has been] quite successful with this issue, and the United States, what happens is that before the school holidays and here in Australia around December and November, that’s when you get more calls and that’s because they’re being taken back to their home countries for the marriage to be arranged or here in Australia because that’s the time where it’s most suitable for them to have that and that’s when the schools receive complaints or issues from the girls, who are saying: How do I deal with it? How do I convince my parents otherwise? How do I even speak to them?”

To engage with girls of a Pakistani background, the Immigrant Women’s Coalition has brought into the project Dr Monica Zaman.

Dr Zaman has a history of research in Pakistan in the area of intellectual disability as a result of consanguineous marriages.

Her research identified that a large number of the studied marriages had come about by force.

Dr Zaman says the practice is present in Melbourne’s Pakistani communities.

She says in certain cases it’s a way of maintaining family ties, or keeping property in the family, but some young girls are tricked into marrying a relative.

“In my country the girls cannot say anything and the parents decide everything. Here they just talk to the girls, saying this is only because of family ties and we can bring our family members here. Or sometimes they just talk to their daughters saying we are just going for an outing or we are going to visit our relatives and then they force them to marry their cousins.”

Egyptian-born psychologist, Doctor Eman Sharobeem, has dedicated her life to raising awareness about forced marriage.

She is a Commissioner for the Community Relations Commission of New South Wales, which is conducting its own inquiry into forced marriages, and the manager of the Immigrant Women’s Health Service in Sydney.

Dr Sharobeem says the profile of women she’s counselled in connection with forced marriage range from young girls to women who have been married for decades — from countries including Egypt, Jordan, Iraq, Iran and Turkey.

She says the notion of force in the context of marriage is often perceived as being limited to that of physical force, which is present in some situations.

But she reveals marriages can be regarded as forced, even when consent is given.

Dr Sharobeem says some girls she’s seen are enticed by potential partners with promises of wealth or freedom from controlling parents, often the father.

She adds, what’s not talked about as much is the role a mother can play in creating that consent.

“It’s not that a young girl is grabbed [by] her hand or her hair, or has been forced physically only. The community at large understand the meaning of force, but maybe we need to emphasise the psychological manipulation of the young girl by the most important figure in her life, which is her mother, in most of the cases. This is never translated into forced, but it is translated into love and care and extra support and an extra dose of influence from the parents to see their daughters at a young age raising a family.”

Dr Sharobeem says one of her young clients agreed to marry a man out of fear for another family member.

“Basically, she lived in fear that if she would not accept this proposal, her mother would be beaten up and would be divorced, and she would be the cause of her mother going into that tunnel of pain and agony. So, as a compensation to satisfy her father she said, “Yes, don’t touch my mum and don’t divorce her and leave her stereotyped and stigmatised as a divorcee, I will accept this marriage.” Many cases come to our doors of that as well.”

Dr Sharobeem recalls her own experience when, as a 14-year-old girl in Egypt, she was promised to her cousin, whom she married four years later.

“The engagement was long and was very untrue. The second day of the marriage I saw exactly who is the person I am relating to and being with and that was the shock of my life. But I kept it and stayed in the marriage because I had many fears. One fear which he put and drew in my mind was that if I would say a word my parents would be harmed and most of the cases, I am not the only one, have been threatened and also the fear of carrying the title of being a divorced woman in a community — whether here or over there in our homeland — would stigmatise me and would live on me for the rest of my life.”

Girls hoping to escape forced marriages abroad are also among those seeking protection in Australia.

Under the United Nations Refugee Convention, gender-related persecution is a grounds for seeking asylum.

19-year-old Sarah, as she has asked to be known, comes from an affluent Middle Eastern family.

At the age of 14, it was decided she would marry the son of one of her father’s business partners.

Sarah has asked that her voice be disguised.

“His father had a business contract with my father and both parents from both sides decided that it would be a good idea to get me married to their son, and that way they would form a stronger business arrangement between both families. And the mother saw me as a potential wife for him. When they first told me I was going to marry the man, I didn’t know the man, I didn’t know the family, and I don’t even remember seeing his mother, but apparently I was at a social event, I think it was a wedding and she spotted me because back home the mothers look for potential wives for their sons. So, how they do it is they go to their friends’ house of social events to mingle and to spot potential wives and I guess that’s how she found me.//I thought I was not worthy enough to be respected enough for the man to actually get to know me and for him to decide to marry me or not, and I was too young to actually make a decision and marriage is a life-long thing and you don’t, just out of nowhere, pick to marry the girl that was 14.”

Sarah says with the help of a female family member she was able to escape to Australia, where she has lived for three years after being granted a protection visa.

She says she can relate to the confusion other young girls may experience when faced with the prospect of being made to marry against their will.

“When these young girls look back they see their mothers getting married at a young age and their grandmothers and their aunts. At the same time they look at the western side of things where girls don’t get married at 12 or 13. And this causes a dilemma when a guy proposes to them and they’re forced into a marriage and they think: is this a forced marriage or is this a marriage?”

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

View More: Insight program on forced marriages

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