Forced child marriages in Australia: ‘they’re being groomed from the moment they’re born’
Jasvinder’s sister, Robina, committed suicide by setting herself on fire. Picture: supplied.
AT JUST eight years old, as she innocently spent her days between school and her family home in England, Jasvinder Sanghera’s parents secretly promised their young daughter’s hand in marriage to a strange man in India.
Jasvinder was none the wiser. She was just a little girl with only innocent things on her mind.
But as the years rolled by and she watched her older sisters pulled out of school when they reached their teens and sent off to marry men they had only ever seen in a single photograph, she started to realise her destiny had already been sealed.
“I watched at least two of my seven sisters being taken out of a classroom to marry men in India,” Jasvinder told news.com.au. Jasvinder said her sisters “disappeared” but that no one questioned their disappearance.
“My sister Robina was missing from her education for nine months and suddenly returned and was put in my year to catch up. But she was someone’s wife, she had a wedding ring on her finger and wasn’t allowed to wear western dress or integrate.
“I was born in Britain but my father was from India … the professionals were too afraid to ask the question for fear of offending … no one wanted to be called a racist.”
The moment Jasvinder had been dreading most finally arrived one day when she returned home from school, aged 14.
Her mother asked her to sit down in the lounge room.
“My mother presented me a photograph of a man I learned I had been promised to at the age of eight,” she said.
“I said ‘I’m not marrying a stranger, I want to go to school, I was born in Britain’.
“My mother made it clear none of that mattered in the place I was going and that she had only sent me to school because of the law.
“I protested and as a result I was taken out of school and held prisoner in my home.
“My parents put padlocks on my bedroom door and my mother, father and sisters all watched the door to make sure I didn’t leave home until I agreed to the marriage.
“I was missing school but I knew if the teachers called my parents would just give an Oscar winning performance and say I was unwell, or being educated at home or abroad.
“I attempted suicide once, I took an overdose, but they wouldn’t let me go to the hospital for medical attention.
“They gave me coffee and walked me up and down and made me put my fingers down my throat until I was sick because of the fear I would tell someone.
“In the end I agreed to the marriage while planning my escape.”
When Jasvinder was 16, she overheard her mother on the phone booking her ticket to India to marry the man she had never met.
“I ran away,” she said.
“Forced marriage means you are giving your child to a stranger to rape on their wedding night.
“I was missing my family and I wanted to go home, because I’d lost everything I’d ever known.
“I rang them and wanted them to say ‘we see your point, come home, you don’t have to marry this stranger’.
“But instead, when I rang, my mother said ‘you either come home and marry who we say or from this day forward you are dead in our eyes’.
“I told her I would not marry and she said ‘I hope you give birth to a daughter like you and then you will know what it’s like to raise a prostitute’.”
Jasvinder said going against her family was a difficult choice to make.
“My family disowned me,” she said.
“It wasn’t just my parents, it was aunties and uncles and such a wider network.
“Imagine never seeing a family member ever again, even though they’re alive, and feeling it was your fault.
“They make you feel you’re the perpetrator.”
Despite the difficulties she experienced, Jasvinder, who now has three children and a grandson, has never regretted her decision to escape.
“My children will never inherit that legacy of abuse because of that decision I made when I was 16,” she said.
One of Jasvinder’s older sisters, Robina, wasn’t so lucky. Robina was severely abused physically and mentally by her husband who left her “black and blue”. Trapped in a forced marriage and told by her parents that she’d be disowned if she left, Robina set herself on fire and committed suicide.
Jasvinder set up an organisation, Karma Nirvana and hotline in her sister’s honour for victims of forced marriage and honour killings in the United Kingdom. She has become an international advocate and author of three books on forced marriage and is currently in Australia to speak on about her experiences in Adelaide, Melbourne and Sydney.
Jasvinder said forced marriage involving children was rampant around the world and also present in Australia.
“We get victims in Australia calling my hotline all the time seeking support, it’s only been set up for British citizens, but there isn’t a helpline in Australia except for a police one that a lot of people are too scared to call,” she said.
“It’s a widespread issue in Australia we just don’t see young children being groomed by their parents to marry strange men because we’re oblivious.
“The reality is many of them are being groomed from the moment they’re born.
“The children are usually married in nonlegal ceremonies or taken to their parents’ home countries to marry the men their relatives choose for them and we look at their families thinking they appear protected and don’t notice anything else because we’re not looking for it.”
Anti Slavery Australia director, Jennifer Burn said she was currently assisting “about 70 clients”, all victims of human trafficking, many aged under 18 years.
“They are fairly representative of the men and women who have been trafficked to Australia from the Asia Pacific region,” Ms Burn told news.com.au
“We are seeing an emerging caseload involving Australians who might be in a forced marriage situation.” Ms Burn said there were “no reliable statistics” on forced marriage in Australia. “Forced marriage is a slavery-like practice,” she said.
Ms Burn said many underage forced marriages were conducted “outside of the Marriage Act”. “They might be cultural or religious marriages,” she said.
“We have obligations in international and Australian law to prevent forced marriages and to protect those involved.”
The Australian Federal Police (AFP) has investigated 20 matters of suspected forced marriage in Australia from January 1 to September 30 this year.
Eight were in NSW, seven in Victoria, four in Queensland and one in South Australia
Eleven of the investigations involved persons under the age of 18 years.
“No charges or convictions have been recorded out of these investigations at this time,” an AFP spokesman said.
“Forced marriage matters can be particularly challenging to investigate and prosecute for a number of reasons”.
“Investigations are lengthy and complex; Prosecutions rely heavily on victim testimony but victims and witnesses can be reluctant to give evidence due to fear of reprisals and shame, and; the clandestine nature of the crime type results in apprehension by witnesses/victims in making initial contact with authorities,” the AFP said.
Earlier this month the Herald Sun reported foreign clerics had been visiting Australia to illegally marry off under-age girls, according to allegations raised with the Federal Government.
The AFP investigated allegations of 42 forced marriages, including 32 involving children, between March 2013 and August this year. Seven child bride cases were in Victoria.
It is understood the Commonwealth Director of Public Prosecutions is considering charges in a number of cases.
And allegations were raised with the Attorney-General’s department early this year that clerics had been “entering Australia in order to conduct marriages of under-age girls”, according to documents released under Freedom of Information laws.
The AFP’s human trafficking team said it had no such evidence, but would not clarify if any of its 42 inquiries involved such allegations.
The visas of up to 20 clerics have been cancelled in the past 2.5 years for fear they would disrupt community harmony or incite violence, or because their credentials were bogus.
Since 2013, 140 religious worker visas have been cancelled or withdrawn.
According to the FOI documents, marriages of so-called “jihadi brides” to Islamic State terrorists could be nullified.
“Australia’s existing forced marriage offences capture a range of marriage and marriage-like relationships, and can apply where the victim is taken overseas to be married, or where an Australian citizen or resident is involved in forcing a person to be married overseas,” a briefing states.
“The existing and amended offences could apply to so-called ‘jihadi brides’ if they did not consent to a marriage because of coercion, threat or deception (under the existing offences), or because they did not understand the nature and effect of a marriage ceremony (under the amendments).”
Forced marriage offences carry a jail term of up to four years, or seven years if the victim is under 18, and 25 years if a minor is trafficked overseas.
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.