Tuesday, 30 September 2014
Questions without Notice
Child and Forced Marriage
My question is to the Assistant Minister for Immigration and Border Protection and Minister Assisting the Prime Minister for Women, Senator Cash. Can the minister advise the Senate what the government is doing to prevent child and forced marriage?
I thank Senator McKenzie for this important question. The government takes a zero tolerance approach to child and forced marriage and recognises that it constitutes a violation of the human rights of women and girls. In Australia, child and forced marriage is illegal. It is an assault on Australia's values. The Australian government is sending a very clear message that child and forced marriage will not be tolerated anywhere, and to do this credibly we need to commence here in Australia. It is now 10 years since the Howard government established its Action Plan to Eradicate Trafficking in Persons. The Minister for Justice is currently working on finalising the National Action Plan to Combat Human Trafficking and Slavery. Last year, the Australian parliament passed legislation to recognise child and forced marriage as a serious form of exploitation and a crime akin to slavery.
Australian law is clear—that marriages must only take place when both parties consent and when parties are of marriageable age. Forced marriage offences carry a maximum penalty of four years in jail, or seven years if the victim is a child. If a child is taken overseas for the purpose of a forced marriage, the maximum penalty increases to up to 25 years imprisonment. The AFP has specialised teams to investigate forced marriage. These teams work in close collaboration with state and territory police. Since 2013, the AFP have received 24 referrals for suspected forced marriage matters. However, anecdotal evidence would suggest that the true number of cases is greater than reports indicate. Accordingly, the government's focus is to ensure increased community awareness and education at a grassroots level to ensure that this abhorrent practice is stamped out.
Child and forced marriage is about abuse, subjugation and exploitation. When girls are forced into marriage, they are often prevented from finishing school and they are at high risk of early pregnancy and serious complications, even death, resulting from being pregnant too young. They may have restrictions imposed on their freedom and can suffer emotional and physical abuse and sexual assault, contributing to anxiety and depression. Child and forced marriage continues to be an impediment not only to the economic, legal, health and social status of women and girls but to the development of the community as a whole. The empowerment of, and investment in, women and girls, as well as their meaningful participation in decisions that affect them, is a key factor in breaking the cycle of gender inequality and discrimination, violence and poverty. The complex and challenging nature of child and forced marriage necessitates the collective efforts of government, law-makers, judicial authorities, law enforcement officials, and community and religious leaders to address both the causes and consequences.
As the Minister Assisting the Prime Minister for Women, I regularly meet with stakeholders in relation to child and forced marriage and will be working with my state and territory colleagues to consider the issue as part of the Second Action Plan under the National Plan to Reduce Violence against Women and Children. The government, in close collaboration with non-government organisations, is also investing in community education and awareness raising. In March, the Minister for Justice announced over $1.4 million in funding to ACRATH, Anti-Slavery Australia, Project Respect and the Scarlet Alliance to continue their invaluable awareness raising, outreach and service provision. At July's National Roundtable on Human Trafficking and Slavery, the Minister for Justice announced a further commitment of almost half a million dollars to support Australian NGOs in their efforts to prevent child marriage. With this funding, Anti-Slavery Australia will expand its legal advice service to provide free, individualised legal advice by email and text message to people who are at risk of forced marriage.