Child Brides: Why is our government turning a blind eye?

What have we become as a society if we cannot protect our children?  Each year, 15 million girls are married before the age of 18.  That is 28 girls every minute.  The problem is most prevalent in African nations.  In Niger 3 in 4 children are married off before their 18th birthday.  There are many reasons that child marriages exist and are permitted across the world.  Religion is one leading factor, but social and cultural acceptances of these practices are rife in many undeveloped nations.

In Pakistan recently, a bill to increase the minimum age for marriage from 16 to 18 was rejected by “The National Assembly’s Standing Committee on Religious Affairs and Interfaith Harmony”, but not only was it rejected but the chief of the “Council of Islamic Ideology” labelled the bill “blasphemous” and “anti-Islamic.”

The issue hardly raises a blip on the radar of the average Westerner.  Why would it?  It’s not in front of our eyes and it’s not accepted in our society.  We see it as a third world issue and we conveniently choose to ignore it.  But with a boom in immigration and refugees from undeveloped nations the problem is arriving on our doorstep.

We assume that there is no possibility that there is even one child bride in Australia, we put trust in our government and our laws.  We blindly believe that all immigrants in our nation will abide by our laws, our values and our ways.  Sadly that is not the case.  Bee al-Darraj, an Iraqi-born Sydney woman, has broken the silence within her community to confirm that child brides are not unusual in Sydney and nothing is being done to stop it.

Ms al-Darraj spoke to ‘The Australian’, sharing her story of seeing friends and relatives going overseas to be married off, some as young as 12.  They would return to Australia with these older husbands.  In one case a 14 year old friend gave birth to her 28 year old husband’s child.  Yet the authorities did nothing to act.  Isn’t it the responsibility of the hospital to report these incidents to the relevant child protection agencies?  Did this happen? If so why wasn’t the 28 year old man arrested?  These are the questions as a society we need to ask, we need answers as to why our laws were not upheld.  It is illegal in Australia to marry a child under the age of 18, and it is illegal to have sexual intercourse with a child under the age of 16.  There are no doubts that under Australian law, charges should have been laid.

Ms al-Darraj contacted the Australian Federal Police many times but was ignored.  The AFP has confirmed that it has investigated 69 incidents of underage marriage in the 2015-2016 financial year, but there have been only a few successful prosecutions.  This is completely unacceptable, what is preventing all of these people being prosecuted?  The AFP advised that they could not prosecute many of the cases as the marriages occurred prior to 2013 when new legislation was enacted.

On 27th February 2013, forced marriage was comprehensively criminalised under the Commonwealth Criminal Code, with the offence attracting a penalty of seven years imprisonment.  But despite the new laws, prosecutions are extremely low.  An AFP spokesman told the ‘Daily Telegraph’ back in October 2015 that “Forced marriages matters can be particularly challenging to investigate and prosecute”  But as many of the cases involve minors, it is still a bitter pill to swallow, especially when we have very clear laws on underage marriages and underage sexual intercourse.  How are we not able to charge the culprit under these laws?

Another recent article in the ‘Daily Telegraph’ wrote about a “Tsunami of young girls forced into marriage’ including multiple cases involving children between the ages of 9-10.  Brad Hazzard the Family and Community Services Minister described the practice as “barbaric and cruel” and called on the establishment of emergency housing immediately for the victims and the implementation of a federal wide government response to address this issue.  Mr Hazzard has also called on religious imams to educate their local communities to “recognise that forced marriage is completely unacceptable”

It is clear that we do have a child bride issue within Australia, and it’s one we cannot accept in our nation.  It is also abundantly clear that our current laws and government wide approach to dealing with this issue has been unsuccessful.  It is time for societal outrage to force change; it is time for our government to do whatever is required to bring about a stop to this disgusting practice.  It is not only the man marrying the child that should be prosecuted but all within the family and community who know and withhold knowledge of criminal activity.  This is something we cannot turn a blind eye to.

The AFP encourages victims of human trafficking or those that have information regarding human trafficking to contact the AFP on 131 AFP (131237) or email Victim-Based-Crime@afp.gov.au.