22 Mar 2019

To combat forced marriage all Australians must play their part

To confront forced marriage Australians must know the warning signs and the pathways for reporting suspicious circumstances.

Stella Freitag speaks at the Forced Marriage Conference in Perth. Photo Credit: Franca Pellegrini via Minderoo Foundation.

This article was co-authored by Walk Free Intern Constance Flake, Research Analyst Stella Freitag and Lead Global Freedom Network Franca Pellegrini.

Australians need to be aware of forced marriage, what it looks like and how to report it, keynote speakers at the Forced Marriage Conference in Perth have urged.

The conference, which was held earlier this month, raised awareness of the complexities of forced marriage  in Australia. Forced marriage is a global issue that affects more than 15.4 million people worldwide. Women and girls are disproportionally affected, accounting for 84 percent of all victims. 55 per cent of all victims of forced marriage are found in the Asia-Pacific region, which includes Australia.

Forced marriage has been illegal in Australia since 2013 however to date there have been no prosecutions. Forced marriage is preventable in Australia but wider awareness of the potential warning signs is needed.

A Walk Free 2018 publication on forced marriage noted it is a crime often perpetrated by the family of the victim. Victims may be reluctant or unwilling to go to the police as they don’t want their parents put behind bars, they just want the pressure to marry to stop.

If a young person is demonstrating depression, prolonged absence from school or work, is anxious at the idea of an upcoming family trip or announces a sudden engagement these are all signs they could be at risk.

Another key issue identified at the conference was uncertainty around the reporting process when forced marriage is suspected. If the situation arises where it is essential to intervene, there are steps individuals can take to reach out.   

My Blue Sky, is the national forced marriage helpline, offering preliminary assistance, including free, confidential legal advice and direction for victims.

The Australian Federal Police (AFP) can assist people who are at risk of, or who are already in, a forced marriage. Importantly this includes if a person needs help ensuring they won’t be taken overseas.

The AFP also refer victims for support, including safe accommodation, financial assistance, legal advice and counselling through the Support for Trafficked People Program (STPP) run by the Red Cross.  If the person referring the victim, is not comfortable speaking to the police, the STPP can also be contacted for advice. Support is available for victims even if they don’t want to assist with an investigation or prosecution.

The Forced Marriage conference heard from Fremantle member of parliament Simone McGurk (Minister for Child Protection and Women’s Interest), Dr. Carol Kaplanian from the Women and Newborn Health Service and Grace Wong from Anti-Slavery Australia. The conference also sought to initiate a network of WA stakeholders from diverse sectors to address the needs of those who are vulnerable to this practice within the community.

The event hosted over 100 participants from more than 60 organisations, ranging from stakeholders in the health and education sectors, to service providers and other NGOs. The conference was organised by seven WA agencies, including ACRATH (Australian Catholic Religious Against Trafficking in Humans), the AFP, Australian Red Cross, Anti-Slavery Australia, the Archdiocese’s Justice, Ecology and Development Office, the Women and Newborn Health Service, and the Women’s Council for Domestic and Family Violence Services.  Walk Free presented at the conference and provided in-kind support on the day[ .