Australia: Early and forced marriages

The Australian
Australian girls as young as 14 have been flown overseas and forced to marry older men in an attempt by their families to protect them from promiscuity and Western influences at home.
It was a tense time for staff at the Australian embassy in Lebanon. A 14-year-old girl had shown up on the doorstep alone, with her suitcases. Through tears, she said she wanted to return home to Australia to her mother, after effectively being imprisoned at the home of her new husband's family.
She revealed to embassy staff that she had arrived in Lebanon a year ago with her father, ostensibly for a holiday. But that was a ruse. Despite her protests, she was soon married to an older man, a distant cousin, in the country's traditional north.

"Dad just couldn't cope with the Western nature of Australian life, the independence of Australian life," a government official familiar with the case says. "He became concerned that his daughter may be running around with boys, so he took her to Lebanon as a means of protecting her."

The embassy swung into action; its staff has handled 12 cases, seven of them involving minors, in the past two years. Although the fundamentals are always the same -- Australian teenagers fleeing arranged marriages set up by their parents -- ambassador Stephanie Shwabsky says each case is different, and involves intense negotiations with local officials and families.

"The cases that come to our attention are very serious. The young people involved are very upset and want our assistance and protection," Shwabsky says.

Arranged marriages are an important part of many Asian, European and Middle Eastern cultures, and the practice has long existed in multicultural countries such as Australia. However, concerns have arisen that marriages are being arranged in Australia for teenagers too young for such commitments.

Welfare workers say there are several hundred cases across the country, mostly in Sydney and Melbourne, of girls dropping out of school to get married. Although it varies from state to state, the average legal school-leaving age is 16. In Australia people under the age of 18 need a court order to marry legally.

Concern centres on Australian-Arab communities, although not all the teenagers involved are Muslim. Some girls happily consent to these arrangements. Others find their own fiances. But a few -- such as those handled by the embassy in Lebanon -- are forced into it.

Australian embassy staff eventually put the 14-year-old girl on a plane back to her mother in Australia. The girl says her husband never touched her sexually and agreed to end the marriage. But other cases are not so simple, sparking long, bitter legal battles.

"Where a marriage is arranged, which is the majority of cases, and the parties are willing, then the embassy does not get involved," Shwabsky says, adding it is important to remember that the legal age for marriage is 18 in Australia and 16 in Lebanon.

"But when a girl of any age comes to us and says that they are being forced into a marriage against their will or pressure is being placed upon them, such as their passports have been seized and they are told they won't be able to leave Lebanon until they agree, then it's a very different and difficult position," she says.

"And the embassy will go a long way to try to protect and help those girls. These are Australian girls asking for help."

Back home, welfare workers tell a similar story of girls dropping out of high school to get engaged to their peers or slightly older men. The Victorian Islamic Women's Welfare Council is concerned these girls, who legally marry after turning 18, seem unaware of, or uninterested in, other options such as further education, work and careers.

They and their families feel they don't belong in mainstream Australian society, which they think distrusts Muslims, the council says. So rather than try to integrate and participate in society, they isolate themselves on the fringes.

"Because of the ongoing tensions after September 11, rightly or wrongly they think that whatever chances they had of integration [no longer exist]," says council manager Joumanah El Matrah. "And it's not a sense of blame or anger, it's being pragmatic. They are going to just live quietly and exist on the fringes. It's quite bleak.

"Our experience has been that Muslim women can almost be divided into two groups. One is high achieving with good education levels, good careers and good participation in their community. And the other drops out of school early and then drops out of their community. There really is this crude division, there is no in between.

"That's not what you see in other communities."

The council is among grassroots groups tackling the problem, speaking to career advisers in high schools with significant numbers of students of Arab and African background. It also runs workshops for female students, addressing self-esteem, empowerment, leadership and cultural identity.

"Girls in Year 10 are telling their career advisers, 'Don't worry about helping us, because we are just going to get married'," says one of the council's youth workers, Moona Hammoud, 21.

"Their expectations are not high and they think they have few options. They are not encouraged to continue their schooling or it's all getting too hard," says Hammoud, who has helped produce community newsletters discussing the issue.

"I know one Iraqi girl who has been allowed to finish high school but then she will marry a local Iraqi boy. She doesn't really have a choice but she sort of likes him and is going along with it.

"She says, 'My friends are all getting married so what's the big deal?"'

The big deal is whether they fully comprehend the responsibilities of marriage and parenting. Besides, dropping out of school restricts their employment options and financial independence.

"Their future health and wellbeing is dependent largely on the kind of person that they marry," says El Matrah.

Victorian Arabic Social Services manager Leila Alloush says many arranged marriages, especially among older couples, are loving and successful. But if they do break down, the suffering can extend beyond the couple in question. Families on both sides, often friends beforehand, are torn apart in communities that frown on divorce.

"What we try to tell parents is yes, the kids have consented, but the kids are so young, and kids change their minds about relationships 10 times before they get married," says Alloush, adding that VASS seeks to inform parents about the legal age for marriage and leaving school.

Parents often pressure their children to find a partner or accept one they suggest, because marriage is the best protection against Western vices.

"Protecting teenagers is pretty scary for all parents. They worry about drugs, violence, sexuality, prostitution," a community worker says. "But it's scarier for these parents because their cultures are more conservative to begin with: their dress code, their behaviour, almost everything."

Other parents are concerned about their Australian-born children losing their cultural identity or religion.

"Parents are scared their children are adopting an Australian way of life. For some [marriage is] the only way [of maintaining] control over their kids, of holding on to their cultural identity. And of course they are scared of their daughters becoming promiscuous," another community worker says, adding that sex before marriage is taboo. "There's a cultural clash going on here."

Alloush worries about publicising the problem, which could embarrass and stigmatise communities already reeling from a backlash against Muslims in the wake of terrorist attacks overseas. She fears parents as well as their children may then stop seeking out support services, thereby driving the problem underground.

Instead, grassroots groups need more funds to work with clerics and community leaders to educate families about the pitfalls.

Some groups say their pleas for funding from the Victorian Government have been consistently ignored.

Australia's most senior Islamic cleric, Sheik Taj Din al-Hilali, says he is doing all he can. Opening a cabinet in his office in Sydney's Muslim heartland, he points to a manila folder containing details of marriages, some of them arranged, that have gone wrong.

He worries about girls heading to Lebanon to marry men suggested by their families. He says often husbands agree to marriage just to obtain a visa for Australia.

"We have automatic visa stamped on our heads," says one woman who has been a victim of the scam.

Another young mother waits patiently in Hilali's office for counselling about her failing marriage. She wed her husband, who is 10 years older, when she was 18. She saw him about three times in Sydney's Lakemba before he asked her father for her hand.

"I didn't know him at all, we had never spoken," says the woman, who does not want to give her name for fear of shaming her family.

But she explains she agreed because she wanted to please her parents; besides, the idea of starting her own family seemed exciting at the time. Now in her mid-20s with two young children and a husband she doesn't understand, she fears she made a mistake.

"I feel like I've lost so much of my life," she says. "When you are 18 or 19, you haven't thought through the marriage, what it means to start a new life."

Trudy Harris
2 August 2005