Over 100 cases of forced child marriage are currently being investigated by the Australian Federal Police, according to data obtained under Freedom of Information laws by Seven News, as reported by NewsCorp. Seven News has been conducting an ongoing investigation into the issue.
The new data reveals that since January 2017, 171 cases of forced child marriage have been subject to AFP investigation. Even children aged just six and seven are included in this alarming figure.
Experts are now calling for urgent political action on the issue including a review of how child protection services treat victims and identification of where systemic gaps exist.
An earlier report called “End Child Marriage Australia” which was published by the National Children’s and Youth Law Centre (now named Youth Law Australia) exposed cases of forced child marriage in each State and Territory in Australia. The highest number of forced child marriages is occurring in NSW.
The AFP figures don’t include children who have been married overseas and then have been brought to Australia — the “weddings” actually took place on our soil. For example, one 34 year old Melbourne man arranged the purchase of a child to “marry” with a gold necklace.
While the AFP data is limited to known forced child marriages here in Australia, it’s believed that many more Australian-born children are taken internationally where they then remain off-radar in their new “married” life.
What is very concerning is that those who have direct experience working with victims of forced child marriage say the kids are often too scared to tell anyone, so the official figures likely reflect under-reporting. UNSW’s Youth Law Australia (YLA) director Matthew Keeley said: “[Kids] often express how dangerous it could be in their community or within their family if they attempt to leave”.
The children also have conflicted loyalties and sometimes fear being responsible for sending their parents to jail. Some families have even argued they didn’t even realise it was illegal, however forced marriage of children under 18 is illegal under Australia’s Marriage Act 1961, with a potential penalty of seven years’ jail.
Helping Australian children who are at risk of being taken overseas to be married off, never to be returned, is tricky with our current system. Child protection services may not immediately classify the child as being in need of care and protection, or they are found to offer limited support to victims. Some legal support agencies have “had to advise children in this position to physically yell and scream at the airport to attract the attention of authorities”, yet it’s difficult to accept that a small child would actually dare to do this, so the usefulness of the advice is questionable.
In one case reported, a girl who had already been taken overseas to be married off was able to get to an Australian Embassy to seek help, stating her passport had been confiscated by her parents. However, because she was a minor, the consular officials could not issue her a new passport without parental consent or without approval by an “Approved Senior Officer”, described as “often a very lengthy referral process”.
It’s inexplicable that when a vulnerable Australian child has worked up the courage to go to an Australian Embassy while overseas and has explained they are being forced into a marriage and has actually expressed fear for their life, that there could not be some more urgent way of dealing with the situation.
There clearly needs to be more done to prevent these sickening forced child marriages from occurring in the first place, and better responses to handling such situations from authorities when they are at risk of happening. Australia is being advised to look to countries such as the UK which have become efficient at preventing and responding to forced child marriage.
NSW Minister for Family and Community Services and the Minister for the Prevention of Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault Pru Goward has been quoted as saying it is “deeply disturbing to think of little girls, pre-puberty, being considered for marriage and for people to be organising that marriage”.
Ms Goward said: “Every child deserves a childhood. The law is clear. Our culture is clear. Children must be protected.”
For Government information on forced child marriage, you can read their factsheet here.
Do you need help with a family law matter? Please contact Canberra family lawyer Cristina Huesch or one of our other experienced solicitors here at Alliance Legal Services on (02) 6223 2400.
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