Child marriage: A closer look at the story behind the headlines

Child marriage: A closer look at the story behind the headlines

Child marriage: A closer look at the story behind the headlines

Updated 26 September 2016, 12:55 AEST

Last week the New South Wales government said a "tsunami of young girls" were being forced to marry overseas.

Last week the New South Wales government drew attention to a "tsunami of young girls" being forced to marry overseas. But do the headlines reflect the statistics on how common child marriage is? Marina Freri takes a closer look.

Before child marriage and forced marriage became a criminal offence in 2013, the Australian Federal Police received only three referrals of alleged cases of child marriage. But in the last year alone that number rose to 69.

"Since 2013 and since forced marriage became a crime, we are seeing another traffic, which is the movement of Australian citizens and residents outside of the country," said Professor Jennifer Burn, the director of Anti-Slavery Australia. "That's a very concerning issue."

The AFP has confirmed that more cases of forced marriage and child marriage are being brought to their attention, but a spokesman said that doesn't necessarily represent a new spike.

He said that the 2013 legislation that made child marriage a criminal offence has encouraged more people to come forward.

The Red Cross coordinator for the organisation's Trafficked People Program, Helen Seignior, agrees with the AFP, saying increased community awareness is resulting in more cases being referred to authorities.

However, Ms Seignior emphasises that a referral needs to be validated before it becomes a confirmed case. Over the past two years the Red Cross has dealt with just under 30 cases of people involved in a forced marriage.

"Currently it's still a small group of people," she said.

"We still have a lot to learn. So far we have had 26 people come to us, the majority of those are teenagers and the majority are females. So young female teenagers, aged 15 to 17, who are really looking for help, needing to leave because they are under the threat of being forced to marry.

"What we are seeing is parents are starting to talk to people about needing to leave school, needing to get married and plan to take them overseas."

Child marriage cases most frequent in spring

It's the secrecy surrounding child marriage that makes it hard to stop the practice, but there are warning signs. The Red Cross says spring is a time when people need to be more vigilant.

"What's interesting to note is that half of those 14 people that came to us last year, came in the period from September to December," Ms Seignor said.

"We are concerned that this is around the time that young people are finishing school and when there are school holidays. This is perhaps a higher-risk time for young people.

"There's definitely stories of parents or extended families planning a marriage overseas ... and that's what young people are telling us, that's their biggest fear: that when they're being taken overseas, they may get married."

Professor Burn points to one case that came to Anti-Slavery Australia's attention, involving a 13-year-old girl from Victoria. Her forced marriage was stopped after her teachers began to suspect that something was not right.

"She stopped going to school ... the school teachers asked where she was ... her friends said she was going overseas to be married," she said.

"At that point the school alerted child protection authorities in Victoria ... who investigated and there was a court order that prevented that girl from being taken out of Australia."

Not all young people at risk decide to talk to their peers about their family's intentions. Ms Seignior says it's incredibly hard for victims to speak out against their parents or relatives, because they are often confronted with a stark choice — accept a forced marriage or be alone.

"If they do leave that family, either before or after the forced marriage, they really face quite sudden isolation," she says.

"Especially for the young people having to make adult decisions at a young age to cut off ties with family ... they need close support through that journey."

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Last week NSW Community and Social Services Minister Brad Hazzard revealed the state's child protection line had received more than 70 referrals over a two-year period.

That prompted calls for Muslim religious leaders to raise more awareness in their community about the criminal nature of forced marriage and child marriage.

But the director of the Australian Muslim Women's Centre for Human Rights, Joumanah El Matrah, says it's a cross-cultural problem.

"It is not a Muslim practice specifically," she said.

"Some Muslim communities have had cases of early and forced marriage, but in other Muslim communities is completely unheard of.

"In Australia we have a broad range of nationalities and religions, and people who are not religious at all, who have forced their children to marry."

Ms El Matrah said that since 1991, her organisation had referred 10 cases to child protection authorities, but none of those involved a girl under the age of 14.

She says young boys and young girls are being forced into a marriage for different reasons.

"They can be cultural reasons around the expectation that parents should organise a suitor for their child, because that's what adults do," she said.

"Sometimes it's because of poverty, sometimes even in Australia people feel the pressure of having children at home and that's unsustainable.

"It's because they're finding their children very difficult to parent ... and sometimes parents are abusive."

Online resources available for children at risk

My Blue Sky is a website to assist young people at risk of forced marriage launched by the Federal Government and Anti-Slavery Australia.

It offers information and support targeted at young people aged 7 to 18.

Professor Burn says My Blue Sky has been able to provide support to Australians who had been taken abroad to marry.

"We have had a number of cases reported to us of Australian citizens who are overseas and subject to a forced marriage," she said.

"In one recent case, that process of building trust and a relationship, which took place electronically ... we were able to establish trust, tell the young person the options that were able to her and assist her to come back to Australia."

Ms Seignior says the strong message for young people at risk is that help is available.

"We can help them find somewhere safe to live," she said.

"We can help them access doctors and counsellors and independent legal and migration advice if they need it. And really importantly, we have case workers that work closely with people to help them manage the emotional strain of having to make such a big decision."