Australia: Government warning on forced marriages

Sending girls overseas for marriage against their will was "tantamount to sexual trafficking" and offenders would be severely punished, the federal Government has warned.
Justice Minister Chris Ellison said that new laws might be needed to stop teenagers being flown to Lebanon by their families and forced into marriages.
He said such offences would supplement tough new laws taking effect that punished sex trafficking with 25 years in prison. Senator Ellison said he had referred the issue of forced marriages -- which was "an abuse of basic human rights" -- to the Attorney-General's Department. "This is tantamount to sexual trafficking ... which is the very thing we're targeting with our laws," he said, urging anyone with information to contact the Australian Federal Police.

The Australian reported that teenagers as young as 14 had sought help from the Australian embassy in Lebanon after arriving in the country and being pressured or forced into marriage. Their parents had arranged the marriages, many without their knowledge, to protect them against promiscuity and other "Western vices".

Local community groups said funding, rather than harsh punishments, was needed to tackle forced marriages and the broader issue of teenagers voluntarily leaving high schools to marry. Strategies were needed to investigate the impact of, and reasons for, early marriages in Arabic-Australian and African-Australian communities, as well as more support services and education programs for families and their daughters, they said.

"They (Victorian government officials) keep pushing us from one department to the next," said Joumanah El Matrah from the Islamic Women's Welfare Council. "Nobody has been remotely interested in the problem." NSW Community Relations Commission chair Stepan Kerkyasharian said forced marriages were against the spirit of multiculturalism and said tackling forced and early marriages required strong leadership within communities.

Australian women held mixed views about the success of early marriages. Sydney woman Fatamah, who did not want to give her last name, said she had wed at 16 to escape her strict parents, who were fearful about her adopting a Western lifestyle. She married a man she hardly knew, despite little pressure from her parents. She later divorced and remarried. Her two sisters fell in love and wed by the age of 17, and are still happily married with children. I didn't have any freedom in my life," Fatamah said. "My parents were the type that said girls don't do this, girls don't do that ... If there was more understanding in my family, more communication, then I would never have done it. They (her parents) thought I was wild and rebellious but it was just normal behaviour."

Source: The Australian, 3.8.05, via CATWA Website: