Why victims aren’t coming forward about forced marriages

Since forced marriage was criminalised in March 2013, over 230 cases have been referred to the AFP, but advocates say this number does not reflect the real number at risk.

They are calling for more measures to be introduced to protect victims and provide a safe space for them to come forward.

No prosecutions here — why?

Since the criminalisation of forced marriage in Australia, there have been no successful prosecutions.

Commander Lesa Gale, who heads the AFP’s victim based crime unit, told the inaugural conference on forced marriage there have been cases where other charges have been laid, but there are a number of barriers to prosecution on forced marriage, including the difficulty of obtaining evidence from other countries.

She said victims are also often reluctant to give evidence against family members.

Labor’s justice spokeswoman Clare O’Neil says the perpetrators are often very close to the victim.

“It’s often the parents and the close relatives of the person who ends up being forced into marriage,” she said.

“Our priority has to be the victims … and from a position of strength, they can choose to go down the path of prosecution.

“We shouldn’t force them to do that at their most vulnerable, making it a condition of government support — that’s just wrong.”

Jennifer Burn, the director of Anti-Slavery Australia, says there is room for a preventive protection scheme, instead of just a criminal response.

“The Australian Government and the ALP have each announced they will consider introducing forced marriage protection orders, but this is a key preventative strategy, this really reflects a gap that we’ve seen.”

The UK introduced a similar law to criminalise forced marriages in 2014, where the first prosecution has just been completed.

Jasvinder Sanghera, a UK-based activist and survivor of forced marriage, says Australia has more work to do.

“What we have done with the law is to create a strong message and not tolerate forced marriages,” Ms Sanghera explained.

“I think that the UK has come further down the line than what Australia has,” she said.

“The law is designed for convictions, but equally it should be used to create awareness because the majority of victims don’t know it exists.”

She thinks Australia needs to train more professionals to make it easier for victims to come forward.

“Reporting to the police is often the last resort,” Ms Sanghera said.

“Victims are more likely to report to teachers, to friends, to third parties, to doctors; the police is often at the end of the extreme.”

Earlier this year the Turnbull Government announced a 12-month pilot program to make it easier for victims of forced marriage to access support.

Under the scheme, victims can access up to 200 days of support without getting the police involved.

Labor has pledged to introduce civil protection orders for all victims if it wins the next election.

“Forced marriage is not some kind of cultural practice, and it can’t be excused as such,” Ms O’Neil said.

“It’s a federal crime and carries a significant jail sentence and we need to be doing far more to help people escape and support people who have become victims.”

Laws too late to help three younger sisters

Ten years ago, Bee Al Darraj ran away from her home in Sydney’s western suburbs.

She had already witnessed her two older sisters being forced to marry strangers when they were 13 and she knew she was next.

She tried to alert authorities, but struggled to find support.

“I think their assumption was, ‘you’re just a rebellious teen, we’ll just talk to your family and work it out for you’; I don’t think it was taken seriously,” she told the ABC’s PM program.

“In the end they put it down as it’s just domestic violence at home, they really weren’t aware of what forced marriages were, or how to approach the situation.”

She tried to stop her three younger sisters from being forced into arranged marriages, but there were no laws in place to stop them.

They were sent on trips to Iraq to get married.

“We expected some support for the younger sisters because we knew they were vulnerable too, but the AFP didn’t take the action to help them,” she said.

“I think had they understood the situation and taken action, the three younger girls wouldn’t have been taken out of the country and wouldn’t have been forced to marry abroad.”

Ms Al Darraj would like the law to be retrospective.

Her younger sisters are still overseas.

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