Forced marriage law misses the mark

Laws passed to protect people from forced marriage in Australia may actually make it harder for victims to seek help, Rose Brown reports.

Australia’s decision to criminalise forced marriage was rushed, uninformed and ineffective, said Dr Shakira Hussein, author and academic at the National Centre for Excellence in Islamic Studies.

Laws criminalising forced marriage in Australia were first passed in 2013 and then expanded two years later to include harsher penalties and a broader definition of forced marriage.

“There was a submission process on the draft legislation, it wasn’t really long enough, everybody had to write it in a hurry,” said Dr Hussein.

“The huge theme in that was, ‘Oh, we really don’t know very much about this, we need more research.’ ”

Joanne Wilton, Forced Marriage project manager at Anti-Slavery Australia, agreed there was lack of research in this area.

“The figures available relating to forced marriage in Australia are very limited so we don’t really know the extent of forced marriage or whether the practice is increasing or decreasing,” she said.

Australia defines forced marriage as marriage without consent because of coercion, threats, deception or lack of understanding due to age or mental capacity. Some offences carry penalties of up to 25 years in prison.

Dr Hussein views this legislation as largely unnecessary.

“The mechanisms by which you go about forcing someone into marriage are already illegal, if they’re threatened, if they’re being abused and if they’re underage … there’s already plenty of legislation to deal with that,” she said.

Dr Eman Sharobeem, former chief executive of Immigrant Women’s Health service, has been working on this issue for almost 30 years and was herself forced into marriage at a young age.

Education is the solution, she said, not new laws.

“I think we have precise laws in place, but it’s just the application. It is not about the law … it is about education about the law,” said Dr Sharobeem.

Dr Hussein said the introduction of similar forced marriage laws in other countries were having unintended yet foreseeable consequences.

“Since this legislation was introduced in Scotland, there’s been a falling number of women reporting, because they don’t want their parents to go to jail,” she said.

“There are various people, including politicians, who have said that this is by and large something that parents who love their daughters think they’re doing in order to secure their futures and the girls again by and large continue to love their parents as well.

“Those who had the most experience and had been working on this the longest were opposed to criminalisation for that reason.”

Dr Hussein believed this could have been avoided if governments had taken the advice offered by those who have had the most experience working on the front lines of the issue.

“Various women’s groups in the UK had been campaigning about this issue for years, for decades and getting absolutely nowhere and then when it did start to gain some traction they weren’t listened to.”

Once these laws are in place they become difficult to reverse, according to Dr Hussein.

“[Politicians think] it sends a signal, it tells people that we disapprove of this by making it illegal. I’m not sure that it does because that’s not what parents think they’re doing.

“It does send a message definitely if you then retract it … it’s very hard to retract it without sending exactly the message you don’t want to send.

“There’s a line about how this is just putting multiculturalism ahead of women’s rights. Well, no, it’s about what actually is likely to work and if women don’t want to make use of the legislation and in fact retreat from using any mechanism then that’s not going to work.”

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