Facing up to forced marriage in Australia

Forced marriage in Australia

This video was created with and for communities affected by forced marriage in Victoria.

Words by Clare Kennedy

In 2016 there were 15 million people in forced marriages around the world, according to the International Labour Organisation, and that number will grow, with Save the Children estimating 7.5 million girls are married illegally each year.

You might think that forced marriage was only a problem in the developing world, but it also happens in Australia, explains Sara Shinkfield, project leader with Red Cross Australia. She is leading a project that supports communities in understanding that forced marriage is against the law.

Under federal law, a marriage is defined as ‘forced’ if a person doesn‘t freely and fully consent, or they are incapable of understanding the nature and effect of a marriage ceremony. This may be due to their age or mental capacity. It should be noted that under Australian law children under 16 are presumed incapable of understanding the nature and effect of a marriage ceremony. Forcing a marriage can carry serious penalties including lengthy jail sentences.

Red Cross’ Forced Marriage Capacity Building Project seeks to engage with and empower communities who self-identify as being affected by the issue of forced marriage. Together we co-design activities that identify and build upon community strengths and prevention strategies, Ms Shinkfield says. ‘Through this engagement, we’ve come to understand that while people are affected, many are reluctant to report.’

It’s worth noting that forced marriage is significantly different to an arranged marriage, she explains. In an arranged marriage, which is legal, the parties to the marriage freely choose whether to marry and are not faced with negative consequences if they choose not to go ahead with it.

‘There is not always a clear line between forced and arranged marriages, particularly in circumstances where there is pressure on a young person to do what the family wants them to do. The issue of consent is very important, however, during the project we have found that consent can be understood differently by different people,’ Ms Shinkfield says.

Why do people do it?

‘Families force marriages for different reasons. For example, it might be about protecting their children’s sexuality or purity. Some families involved in forcing a marriage come from backgrounds where they are not used to the practice of having girlfriends and boyfriends, and they think that marrying their child will protect that child from an ‘unsuitable’ relationship. Or the marriage could be to support someone getting a visa or strengthening family links,’ she explains.

Who is affected?

‘Many survivors are minors, but it is noted that many adults also experience forced marriages. Men and boys may also be affected and may face more barriers in reporting. It may be harder for young men to come forward.’

Why do young people feel unable to express their choice in the matter?

‘Sometimes a young person is from a community that is more collective in nature, and they go through with the union for the greater benefit of the family. In this case the young person is prepared to wear the cost of the decision themselves.’

What service providers are most likely to come across forced marriage?

‘From what we understand it is workers on the front line in Australia who may become aware of instances of forced marriage, for example, teachers, community workers, social workers, psychologists, health workers and police.’

What are the indicators that a forced marriage is about to happen?

‘There are a number of potential indicators – for example unexpected travel over schools holidays can be a clue.

'One girl told a teacher she was going overseas to a family wedding. It turned out that she was going to be her own wedding. A decline in school performance can be another indicator.’

The Red Cross video Forced Marriage in Australia above highlights some of the signs that a forced marriage may be about to happen.

What are the consequences for those forced into marriage?

‘It can have a lifelong effect on a person’s options for their future. Choosing what they want is often curtailed and limited. Pregnancy can often follow a forced marriage and the consequences are considerable. If they are minors they might be unable to finish school, and must face the mental health risks of being pregnant when they are neither psychologically or physically ready. It severely limits access to their human rights.’

Have you met women affected by forced marriage?

‘Yes, we’ve met some women who have come to community group meetings in Melbourne. As we have talked they have identified that they were survivors of forced marriage but hadn’t thought about it in that way before. In this case, ensuring they have access to support, if and as they need it, is our first priority.’

What should you do if you suspect a forced marriage?

Red Cross has released three animations to help explain this issue and what you can do if you know about or suspect a forced marriage is about to occur.

The animations cover:

  • forced marriage in Australia
  • the differences between forced and arranged marriage
  • gender and forced marriage.

What do you hope these resources will achieve?

‘I hope it allows people to begin thinking about the situation in their own communities. We want the videos to be used as a protection mechanism - bringing awareness that forced marriage is a crime and can have serious consequences in Australia. We also hope the videos offer a message of hope to those who might be experiencing a situation of forced marriage – you are not alone and there are services that can support you.’

Find out more about the Australia Red Cross forced marriage project/resources here.

Forced marriage v arranged marriage

Gender and forced marriage

If you would like further information on Red Cross’ Forced Marriage Capacity Building Project in Victoria, contact project lead Sara Shinkfield at sshinkfield@redcross.org.au.

This series was created by Red Cross Australia with the support of Victorian Law Foundation and in partnership with Victorian communities identifying as being affected by the issue of forced marriage. The videos were made to clarify common misunderstandings about forced marriage and the law, and signpost sources of support, particularly for young people who feel alone and would simply like to discuss possible options.

This page was last updated on September 04, 2018