NSW Government launches inquiry into rise of forced marriage in Australia

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(Video: Sydney Hirt)

The New South Wales Government is conducting its first ever inquiry into human trafficking and forced marriage.

Considered a slavery-like practice in Australia, forced marriage is defined as any marriage that has been entered into without meaningful consent, including those involving children.

The Australian Federal Police have received a growing number of forced marriage reports since its criminalisation in 2013. To date Federal Police have received 113 reports, with 69 cases occurring in 2015/16 up from 33 in 2014/15 and 11 in 2013/14.

The majority of cases (52%) are from NSW, leading to the launch of the State Government’s first inquiry into the issue.

Drawing on expertise from a range of non-governmental community organisations, the inquiry seeks to formulate a coordinated response to this growing crime.

One of the key contributors to the inquiry is Ms Laura Vidal, a leading forced marriage expert from The Salvation Army Freedom Partnership, operators of Australia’s only safe house for victims of human trafficking and slavery.

(Source: The Freedom Partnership)

Ms Vidal welcomes the Government inquiry, and argues that much more needs to be done.

“Whilst reports of forced marriage are on the rise in NSW there has been no substantive change to the Government’s response to this issue since it was criminalised back in 2013,” Ms Vidal says.

“From my experience supporting young women at risk, the current framework falls short of ensuring safety and protection and an inquiry is long overdue.”

With first-hand experience working with survivors of forced marriage in Australia, Ms Vidal will use the inquiry to highlight two major inadequacies in the Government’s response to the issue including (1) a lack of training and education at the local level and (2) a lack of appropriate accommodation for victims.

“It is becoming more apparent with the cases that are presenting, that states and territories do not have the adequate tools and resources to assist,” Ms Vidal says.

“There is a particular lack of knowledge by local law enforcement about the Federal response.”

This lack of local training almost cost one victim her chance at freedom. Ms Vidal recalls the story of a 19 year old woman who reported to New South Wales state police that she could not return home as she was being forced to be married.

Unaware of how to respond, police contacted a chaplain at The Salvation Army for assistance. It was only through the chaplain’s knowledge of the work of the Freedom Partnership that a successful referral was made to their anti-slavery programs.

“Had the officers not had a relationship with that chaplain, the victim may not have been linked with appropriate care,” Ms Vidal says.

According to Ms Vidal, vast improvements could be made to the identification of, and response to forced marriage by providing appropriate training to key people already in the community.

“Various front line responders such as state police, school teachers and health care providers are well positioned in the community to identify and respond to cases of forced marriage,” says Ms Vidal.

This view is shared by other community organisations working with victims of forced marriage. A 2014 report entitled ‘The Right to Refuse’ by Good Shepherd and Domestic Violence Victoria, identified school counsellors particularly to be in a key position to identify potential cases of forced marriage involving girls and young women.

In addition to poor levels of police and community training, Ms Vidal says that the current accommodation options available to victims are vastly inadequate, and this has a direct impact on the ability of young women to leave situations of forced marriage.

“Those at risk of forced marriage say they would leave their home and seek help, but only if they had somewhere safe to go,” says Ms Vidal.

There is currently no dedicated accommodation available to victims of forced marriage anywhere in Australia. Under the current state government system, victims of forced marriage are housed in existing forms of accommodation such as youth refuges and shelters.

“Many clients in these situations have a number of anti-social behaviours including drug and alcohol addictions,” says Ms Vidal.

“The refuges also have limits on how long an individual can stay.”

This lack of appropriate accommodation can lead to negative outcomes, including the return of the victim to the original exploitative situation.

“Individuals leaving situations of forced marriage do not feel safe in these environments. They often feel like they have no choice but to return to their families,” Ms Vidal says.

After a three-month stay in a refuge (the maximum time allowed by the facility), there were no other accommodation options available to her. Fearing homelessness, the woman returned to the family home, where she was subjected to physical and emotional abuse as well as the continued threat of forced marriage.

With the help of the Freedom Partnership, the woman was eventually able to leave for a second time and was placed in more suitable accommodation that could meet her needs using private funding.

Ms Vidal says this case highlights the need for Government-funded specialised accommodation for victims of forced marriage, and as such will be a key recommendation to the inquiry.

While more is needed to improve the Governmental response to this emerging crime, Ms Vidal is confident that the upcoming inquiry is a step in the right direction.

“My hope is that this inquiry will really help to improve the way we identify, and respond to victims of forced marriage in this country,” says Ms Vidal.

“We have made a good start, but there is more that needs to be done to prevent this from happening to more young women and children, and to better support those who are affected.”

The Governmental inquiry began on June 15 at NSW Parliament House.

If you or someone you know may be affected by forced marriage, contact the Salvation Army Freedom Partnership for assistance on (02) 9211 5794 or email endslavery@aue.salvationarmy.org.

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