Pressing for Progress on Forced Marriage in Australia
8 Mar 2018
Every year 15 million girls are married before the age of 18 , and it may surprise people to know that Australia contributes to this global statistic. Despite forced marriage being criminalised in 2013, child, early and forced marriage (CEFM) continues across Australia.
CEFM impacts on both boys and men, women and girls; however it is universally understood that the practice disproportionately impacts on women and girls. Women and girls are over-represented in the number globally that are married before 18 years old, and the impacts are often permanent and long-lasting. CEFM can lead to coerced sexual initiation, marital rape, suppression of sexual orientation and gender identity, interrupted education, domestic and family violence, abandonment, early pregnancy, isolation, and poor-to no economic opportunities.
The Asia-Pacific Institute on Gender-Based Violence  articulates CEFM as a clear issue of gender-based violence that can lead to increased vulnerability. In Australia, the number one driver of violence against women and their children is gender inequality. 
Today, on International Women’s Day, the Winston Churchill Memorial Trust of Australia shines a light on the work of 2016 Churchill Fellow, Laura Vidal, who is pressing for progress in the prevention and support of individuals impacted by forced marriage in Australia.
Laura has spent the last decade working with individuals impacted by human trafficking, slavery and slavery-like practices, which in Australia includes forced marriage. In 2013, when forced marriage was criminalised, Laura’s focus turned to supporting individuals impacted by the practice, and with little available information and practice examples began innovating in service delivery. Laura has documented the gaps in support, and continues to advocate to the Australia government for systemic policy change.
In Australia, the true extent of the issue is unknown as available data is not comprehensive. The National Children Youth Law Centre, in their study on child marriage , reported that between 2011-2013, 250 cases were identified by research respondents. In 2016-2017, the Australian Federal Police received 70 referrals of forced marriage, bringing the total since criminalisation in 2013, to 174 . The common trend concerning forced marriage in Australia involves residents or citizens under the age of 18 being forced into a marriage overseas. Often family members and relatives are alleged to have organised or be organising the marriage without their full and free consent.
Under Australia’s current approach, individuals at risk or who have experienced forced marriage must engage with the Australian Federal Police (AFP) in order to access a government funded support program. Until recently, this engagement required an interview and indication that the individual would be willing to participate in a federal criminal investigation. After much advocacy by a range of non-government and civil society stakeholders, the program can now be made available to individuals who are known to police but who do not necessarily want to engage in an investigation. Anecdotal evidence from both law enforcement and community organisations shows that many individuals do not wish to engage with law enforcement, on any level. Individuals are fearful that their family members will face criminal prosecution, and that they will be shamed and dis-owned by their family and community. The consequence of having any relationship at all between the support offered and the police creates a significant barrier toward individuals accessing the necessary support they need to be safe, avoid an unwanted marriage and move forward with their life.
To date, there remain no prosecutions under the 2013 criminal legislation. Criminalisation sparked a number of initiatives led by the Australia Government and their non-government and civil society partners. There is growing acknowledgement that in order to prevent the practice, legislation is only one part of a complex and comprehensive response, which is required to best support individuals and their families. Young people aged 16-18 years represent a significant number of those at risk, and a more nuanced intervention is required.
Laura’s Churchill Fellowship took her to six countries (Sri Lanka, United Kingdom, Denmark, United States, Canada and Kenya) to explore innovative and best-practice solutions to addressing forced marriage. Based on the learning of survivors, advanced practitioners, academics and government representatives in the places she visited, Laura’s research made a number of conclusions about the way in which the issue is both understood and responded to. Of significant note is the way in which Australia defines the issue, as a practice of slavery. This definition whilst not incorrect, is creating a barrier to engaging in mainstream conversation. It is demonising communities who are reluctant to have a conversation that may lead to attitudinal or behavioural change. Most other countries across the globe see the issue as a clear issue of gender-inequality and gender-based violence.
As a result of this finding, Laura is working to diversify the conversation about forced marriage in Australia, and build a recognition of the continuum to which forced marriage occurs. In order to prevent the practice, early intervention responses and frameworks need to be put in place. There is much to learn and adapt from the way this is done in areas such as family violence and child protection. Laura is keen to see the definition of forced marriage expanded to include the intersections with gender-based violence, family violence and child protection; with the view that this will improve community engagement and ensure that comprehensive prevention and service delivery frameworks are developed.
Laura continues to be driven by the motivation that adequate and appropriate supports remain unavailable to individuals facing forced marriage in Australia. Laura has sat in front of too many vulnerable young people who have reached out for help and who are choosing not to access what is available because of the conditions that are attached, and, that it is not tailored or targeted to what they believe they need.
On International Women’s Day 2018, we #PressforProgress for those impacted by child, early and forced marriage. The long-lasting, life-altering and detrimental impacts of the practice, make it imperative for the issue to remain on both the domestic and global agenda. No country is immune, and it will require informed and collective efforts to end it and ensure adequate safety and support is available. The dignity and rights of all women and girls must be upheld, because one person forced into marriage, is one too many.
2016 Churchill Fellow
Laura is a passionate advocate for women and girls, having spent ten years supporting and advocating for those impacted by human trafficking, slavery and slavery-like practices including early and forced marriage. With a background in case management and project coordination Laura had led and delivered services to asylum seekers and refugees, women experiencing homelessness and individuals impacted by human trafficking and slavery. Laura currently holds the position of Policy and Research Specialist at Good Shepherd Australia New Zealand, and brings her experiences of service delivery to research, policy and advocacy in this role. Laura is one of Australia’s leading experts in understanding and responding to early and forced Marriage. In 2016, Laura received a Winston Churchill Memorial Trust Fellowship, which took her on a study-tour of six countries to develop innovative and best practice solutions to early and forced marriage. She holds a Master’s Degree in Human Rights Law and Policy and a Bachelor’s Degree with Honours in Social Work.
You can connect with Laura via;
 Girls Not Brides, ‘What is the Impact of Child Marriage?’, Accessed on 26/2/2018, at: https://www.girlsnotbrides.org/what-is-the-impact/
 Asian Pacific Institute on Gender Based Violence, ‘What is Forced Marriage?’ Accessed on 26/2/2018, at: www.api-gbv.org/aboutgbv
 Our Watch (2015) ‘Change the Story: A shared framework for the primary prevention of violence against Women and their children in Australia’, p.9
 National Children and Youth Law Centre (2013) ‘Ending Child Marriage- Australia. Research Report on the Forced Marriage of Children in Australia’
 As reported each year in the Interdepartmental Committee on Human Trafficking and Slavery Report, accessed at: https://www.ag.gov.au/CrimeAndCorruption/HumanTrafficking/Pages/Australias-response-to-human-trafficking.aspx
 Report of the Interdepartmental Committee on Human Trafficking and Slavery—July 2015 to June 2016