Forced Marriage In Australia: The Conflict Between Family And A Future

Being forced to choose between your own future and a relationship with your family can be a heartbreaking decision.

No one should be made to choose between their own future and a relationship with their family but for many young Australians this trade off is their reality.

Forced marriage isn't just marrying someone without choosing -- it also about cultures, family dynamics, religious beliefs and the delicate balance between these.

Forcing someone into marriage has been a criminal offence in Australia since 2013, and now both sides of federal politics have announced new polices to improve facilities to support victims.

While these moves are largely welcomed by professionals in the area, they believe victims need more support to have the courage to leave these situations in a safe and secure way.

Facilities need to be improved to support victims. Image: Getty Images.
What is forced marriage and why does it happen?

A forced marriage is a union that takes place without the full or free consent of one or more of the parties involved. This occurs due to threats, deception or coercion and often one or both of the people don't understand what entering into a marriage means.

Coercion and deception can include duress, psychological oppression, abuse of power, detaining a person or taking advantage of their vulnerability.

There are many reasons why a person could be forced into a marriage and these involve cultural, religious and social factors.

"Typically women and girls are coerced or forced into marriage for a range of different reasons and that could be to maintain culture, religion or tradition," Good Shepard Australia New Zealand's Laura Vidal told ten daily.

"It can also be to do with things like enhancing social or class hierarchy, financial benefits, social control and there is also the issue of individuals who identify as LGBTQI+ where that may not be acceptable in their family or community so marriage is used as a way to control sexuality.

"Also for people with a disability being forced into a marriage so they [their partner] can assume caring responsibilities."

There are a range of complex factors that lead to forced marriage. Image: Getty Images.

Vidal also said it's difficult to know how many people are subject to forced marriage in Australia because of the low the rate of reporting. This is due to the high risk victims face when reporting the issue as this often means they have to speak out against their parents and families.

From what we know, The Australian Federal Police received 49 referrals in the 2017/18 reporting year which was an increase since forced marriage was criminalised in 2013. In 2013/14, police received just 11 referrals. It is believed many more people are victims of forced marriage than statistics suggest.

What are the risks of forced marriage?

Forced marriages are often characterised by violence, meaning the victim faces serious danger when they are in a forced marriage and when they try to leave. Central to this danger is the issue of consent.

"If you don't consent to marriage then effectively you can't consent to sex and so every time that occurs it would be considered sexual assault or rape," Vidal said.

"There's compounded forms of abuse and violence that occur because if you don't consent to one action then you can't consent to the consequent things that occur after that."

These consequent things could include unwanted or early pregnancy, power imbalance within the relationship and the inability to live freely.

Victims face the danger of loosing their relationships with their families if they decide to leave a forced marriage, as it is often the person's parents or a close family member that has chosen their partner.

Vidal says victims make disclosures in a range of ways, including telling school counsellors, calling hotlines or informing a trusted person.

Victims attempt to leave forced marriages in a number of ways. Image: Getty Images.

"They make that disclosure and [they are] hoping that the person they make that disclosure to knows how to respond."

It is for this reason that Vidal says training and awareness in this area is critical for assisting victims.

Both sides of federal politics have a policy on forced marriage

Forced marriage was made criminal in 2013, however there has never been a conviction under this law. This has service providers calling for a response to forced marriage outside of the judicial system, where funding is used to help the victims, not the perpetrators.

"It is always disappointing as a service provider to see the resources going into the criminal justice system response and almost nothing to meet the human need," National Manager for the The Freedom Partnership Jenny Stanger told ten daily.

"Where are the resources to help the community meet the needs of these young people?"

Recently, both the federal Coalition and Labor have announced new reforms to help victims of a forced marriage.

On June 15 this year, Assistant Home Affairs Minister Alex Hawke announced the government is developing a proposed model for a Commonwealth Forced Marriage Protection Order scheme. This would be dedicated to providing additional support to victims of forced marriage outside the criminal justice system.

“The Government has already committed to provide victims of forced marriage access up to 200 days of support through the Support for Trafficked People Program without being required to contribute to a criminal investigation or prosecution," Hawke said in a statement.

“Forced Marriage Protection Orders will complement our existing criminal offences and provide a flexible civil remedy for people in, or at risk of, forced marriage.”

Alex Hawke announced the development of a new government proposal in June. Image AAP.

On the other side of parliament, Labor's Shadow Minister for Justice Clare O'Neil said if elected, a Shorten government would dedicate $8.7 million to expand support for victims.

O'Neil also said in a speech in early June that Labor could create a Forced Marriage Protection Order to provide civil protection against forced marriage for all victims regardless of their age.

"I’m excited to announce ... Labor will also commit to establishing a Forced Marriage Unit to provide a one-stop shop to connect victims to support services and government agencies," O'Neil said during her speech.

Potential Changes Welcomed But More Needs To Be Done

The proposed changes are welcomed by groups like Good Shepard and The Freedom Partnership, but both believe more funding and a move away from the criminal justice system would best help victims of forced marriage.

Stranger said accommodation for victims is greatly needed. She told ten daily that without a place to say, victims are less likely to leave a forced marriage.

Victims need more accessible accommodation so they have somewhere to go. Image: Getty Images.

"It's just crazy to not have services funded at least across all the main cities where young people can land for one-to-two years if they need to leave their family and get support," she said.

It is such a heartbreaking issue to work on. You can just see on people's faces the absolute turmoil and devastation.

The Freedom Partnership offers accommodation to victims and peer-to-peer sessions between young victims and older people to share experiences and give advice.

Stanger said at the heart of ending forced marriage is changing the way we communicate about the issue so the schools and friends of victims know how to help, so communities realise how prevalent the issue is in Australia and so families from other cultures and practices might be understood.

"We need to understand where people are coming from and that a lot of parents take marriage really seriously ... they are not trying to make their kids unhappy they just have different ideas."

For further advice, visit www.mybluesky.org.au, call (02) 9514 8115 or text 0481 070 844. If someone is at risk of forced marriage, call the AFP on 131 237. In an emergency, call Triple Zero (000).