Senate debates

Monday, 3 March 2014


International Women's Day

10:17 pm

Photo of Helen KrogerHelen Kroger (Victoria, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I am actually very pleased to change the tone of the debate tonight after that contribution. I consider myself to be very fortunate to have grown up in an extraordinary, loving and supportive family where my mother reigned supreme in our house. At the age of 91 she still reigns supreme, and we are all very frightened and make sure that we do what she says. I say that in the context that I was very lucky to be nurtured and brought up in a home where gender was not an issue. I did not know that there was such an issue as gender inequality because it was not something I was brought up with or had to deal with on a daily basis.

With International Women's Day being celebrated across the globe on 8 March, I think it is very important that we use this moment in time to continue to evaluate and assess the progress that is being made across the globe, not just in Afghanistan or Saudi Arabia, where we tend to a draw stark contrast to things that may not be sympathetic with our cultural way of life, but also here in Australia.

So it was that I was absolutely mortified when I picked up TheSydney Morning Herald this morning and read the headline 'Hotline plan to help hidden child brides in Sydney'. With your indulgence, I will read a couple of paragraphs from that article that was written by Emma Partridge. The opening paragraph says:

There are at least 60 child brides living in south-western Sydney, and many more girls are destined to be forced into under-age marriage, according to the head of a women's health centre.

The article goes on at length in relation to an interview with a doctor in a particular area who assists a number of families and, in particular, these young girls. The article states:

One woman recently came to her in tears and said her husband, who was still awaiting clearance in the detention centre, threatened to kill her if she learnt English or went out of the house without him.

''This is happening in Australia. We are not in the suburbs of Afghanistan - this is the suburbs of Sydney.''

A mother and father came into her office and proudly spoke of how they had just celebrated the wedding of their daughter in Iraq.

The doctor turned to the young girl who was 14 and two-months pregnant. This is happening here in Australia, so I raise it here tonight. I think the strongest thing that we can do for our young girls, who have the great fortune to live and be brought up in Australia, is ensure that they have a right and an opportunity to enjoy the innocence of youth. What a tragedy it would be if children could not enjoy the very innocence of their childhood—they should not know any different—or the challenges, the joy and tribulations of adolescence and growing up and the liberty of learning and developing in a supportive environment.

I would have thought that in a socially advanced economy like Australia the least that we should be able to provide for the youth of our country is an education, safety and the protection and safekeeping of children. What should be absolutely paramount is the safekeeping of their innocence, so that they can enjoy something that they will actually never get back in their lifetimes.

Just as we should be protecting and safeguarding that, so too should girls have a right to education and have the right to all the freedoms that we just take for granted here. They should also have the right to choose who they marry. It is something very intrinsically Australian, and it is something that is most unusual for me to get up and speak about tonight. But that article really moved me this morning, and I felt the need to reaffirm Australian values and beliefs and that this should not be tolerated in this country.

In some cases underage marriage is a religious norm. In other cases it is a cultural custom, and I understand that. But in many cases—and I would have to say probably in most cases—underage marriage is encouraged by the girl's family. In all cases, and in my mind without question, it would leave mental and physical scars for life.

As legislators in this place, I believe it is the responsibility of those in this chamber and in the other place, in the House, to make sure that we leave the nation a better, fairer and stronger place. In the words of our national anthem that we all sing very regularly, we are a nation that is 'young and free'. We need to make sure that girls around the world, and more particularly in our place here in Australia, know that it is not okay to be betrothed or married against their will. They need to know this. It is not okay to be threatened with death or dishonour if you leave the house without your husband. It is not okay to be told that you will be killed if you dare to learn English. These things are just not acceptable.

Forced marriages are a crime in Australia, and we need to make sure that young women and girls know this and know where to go if they or someone they know are threatened with underage marriage or are to be married against their will. We need to make sure that there are enough support services in our communities to deal with this issue, and we most certainly need to make sure that young women and girls feel safe and secure in Australia.

Having just caught up with Australia's Ambassador for Women and Girls, I want to applaud the appointment of Natasha Stott-Despoja. I think that she will make a sensational ambassador for us here in Australia, and I know that she will be relentless in campaigning for gender equality and the empowerment of women on an international scale.

Australia has a lot to be proud of in this environment, and in many cases we can be considered to be a beacon of female empowerment in this nation. But it is important that we continue to strive for the same rights as our male counterparts. It is most important that we highlight, as Emma Partridge did today in The Sydney Morning Herald, where the system is letting down so many people. The absolute No. 1 prerogative of this place must be to ensure the safekeeping and protection of our youth and their innocence. They are the future of this country, and we must make sure that we do everything we can to protect them so that they actually have the opportunity to explore and fulfil their maximum capacity.

Just in closing, I would like to thank people like Emma Partridge for bringing this to the attention of the Australian public. It is something that tends to be pushed aside a little bit. It is not an issue that is given a lot of attention front and centre, and it is one that must continue to be ventilated to ensure that this does not happen in Australia, and that there is a zero tolerance approach to this.

Senate adjourned at 22:27