Shocking reality for Aussie child brides
Children as young as six years old are being forced into child marriage in Australia, and more than 100 cases of forced child marriage are currently being investigated by the Australian Federal Police, new figures reveal.
The data, obtained under Freedom of Information laws by Seven News, shows that since January 2017, 171 cases of forced child marriage have been investigated by the AFP.
Some of the children who have been forced to marry are as young as six and seven years old.
Footage previously unearthed as part of Seven News's ongoing investigation into forced child marriage also reveals some of these weddings taking place in Australia, including the wedding between a 34-year-old man in Melbourne and a child who he paid for with a gold necklace.
But experts say that these most recent figures represent just the tip of the iceberg.
According to UNSW's Youth Law Australia (YLA) director Matthew Keeley, children who are forced into child marriage are often too terrified to alert authorities or seek help, and so the numbers likely underestimate the true extent of the problem.
"They often express how dangerous it could be in their community or within their family if they attempt to leave," Mr Keeley said.
In other cases children worry that reporting their situation will result in their parents going to jail.
Under the Marriage Act 1961, the forced marriage of a person under the age of 18 is an offence punishable by up to seven years imprisonment.
A previous report, End Child Marriage Australia, published by the National Children's and Youth Law Centre (now named Youth Law Australia) identified cases of forced child marriage in every State and Territory in Australia.
But missing from the recently unearthed Federal Police data are the unknown numbers of children born in Australia who are taken overseas and forced into child marriage, never to return.
Mr Keeley said YLA has helped children who are on the brink of being moved off shore and may never come back.
In some cases, as a last resort, the organisation has had to advise children in this position to physically yell and scream at the airport to attract the attention of authorities.
Mr Keeley said not nearly enough is being done to effectively prevent and respond to the issue and that urgent review is needed.
In one case, a 16-year-old student, Sarah*, told her school counsellor that her parents had organised an illegal marriage for her overseas that was to take place in two weeks' time. The school contacted a children's legal centre and child protection services.
But child protection services told Sarah's lawyer that she was not considered to be a child in need of care and protection and it was left to Sarah and her lawyer to make a desperate application to the Court to restrain her parents from sending her overseas against her will. Eventually Sarah's passport was surrendered and Sarah had her name added to an Airport Watch List.
But the lack of support from child protection services caused serious additional distress to Sarah and highlighted major gaps in child protection responses.
In another case, a minor, Sophie*, approached an overseas Australian Embassy seeking a new passport, after her existing passport had been confiscated by her extended family upon arrival overseas.
Sophie then revealed she was forced to come to the country to marry a man she did not want to marry and feared she would be in danger if her father and his extended family found out she wanted to leave.
But because Sophie was a minor, consular officers told her they could not issue her with a new passport without the consent of both of her parents, or waiting for approval by an Approved Senior Officer, which is often a very lengthy referral process.
Sophie was only reunited with her mother back in Australia after a specialist legal centre in Australia became involved.
In a third case, Serena*, 15, had to be hospitalised in Australia after attempting suicide. It was revealed Serena's parents planned to marry her to an older relative overseas to "provide her a husband to protect her, and to preserve familial ties".
"Clearly prevention isn't working as it should, and child protection responses are not as effective as they could be" Mr Keeley said. "This issue requires considerable review and investment."
Other countries, such as the UK, are considered more skilled in preventing and responding to this crisis.
NSW currently has the highest number of forced child marriages occurring in Australia.
NSW Minister for Family and Community Services and the Minister for the Prevention of Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault Pru Goward has stated that it is "deeply disturbing to think of little girls, pre-puberty, being considered for marriage and for people to be organising that marriage".
"Every child deserves a childhood. The law is clear. Our culture is clear. Children must be protected," Ms Goward said.
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Nina Funnell is a board member of Youth Law Australia | Know more? Email firstname.lastname@example.org