By Hsin-Yi Lo
“Children everywhere have: the right to survival; to develop to the fullest; to protection from harmful influences, abuse and exploitation; and to participate fully in family, cultural and social life. The four core principles of the Convention are non-discrimination; devotion to the best interests of the child; the right to life, survival and development; and respect for the views of the child”
– UNICEF, Convention on the Rights of the Child
Imagine you are a teenager, you are educated, have not finished school but you have many dreams you want to achieve. But then, you are forced to marry a much older man you barely know. The chances of reaching your dreams become distant.
Child marriage is a custom practised by in parts of Asia, Africa and Latin America, girls as young as preteens are betrothed to older men, to become wives and rear children for their husbands. Unfortunately, many of these girls suffer from abuse, mental illness, isolation, health issues such as HIV, violence, rape and sometimes injuries from child birth. Their education is also cut short, making it extremely difficult for them to find jobs.
Reuters report that every three seconds a girl under 18 year old is married. According to a report by the United Nations Population Fund, “37,000 girls under age 18 are being married off daily, at a pace rising toward 14.2 million a year by 2020, and 15.1 million a year by 2030” In October 2012, the United Nations declared they will end Child Marriage by 2030.
There are numerous factors that contribute to the high numbers of child marriages; the International Centre for Research on Women listed “region, type of place of residence (urban vs. rural), wealth, religion, ethnicity, education, spouse’s education, polygyny, age gap, childhood place of residence and number of siblings” as causes. It also included instances where families married off their daughters in order to settle debts or for other financial reasons.
While this reality may seem as distant, it is also happening in Australia. There have been numerous reported incidents where girls were pressured by their parents to marry; some were successful in escaping the ordeal.
Last year, it was reported that more than 200 seventeen year old girls were brought to Australia under the prospective spouse visa program – between 2006 and 2011. There were more than 100 girls from Lebanon sponsored by men between the ages of 19-37. Each must wed their sponsor within nine months according to the visa requirements. The girls came from countries such as Yemen, Iraq, Lebanon and Thailand. Sponsors were as old as 57 years of age.
The Herald Sun reported an incident of a 10 year old Lebanese girl who was sponsored under the prospective spouse visa program. The girl found out the man she was going to marry “was a violent drunk who kept a previous wife and three children in an adjoining townhouse”. The girl’s family pressured her into the marriage and if she refused, according to a letter, “she will be slaughtered and killed”.
The special visa program was heavily criticised by Joe Tucci, the CEO of Australian Childhood Foundation. Tucci commented “a thorough audit needs to be done to ensure these children are safe. Is this a program the Australian community really supports?” Amidst the criticism, the Department of Immigration answered back by explaining “applicants for a partner visa or a prospective marriage visa must meet a range of criteria, including being able to demonstrate they are in a genuine and on-going partner relationship with their sponsoring partner”.
Forced marriages also happen to girls who grew up in Australia. ABC’s 4 Corners program covered a story earlier this year in which 17 year old Samia was taken to Pakistan by her father under the pretence of a holiday. Once she arrived, she realised her father had arranged for her to marry her first cousin. Samia did not comply, but was pressured and threatened into signing marriage documents. When she returned to Australia, she decided to seek help from local religious leaders, who told her to agree with her father’s wishes. But Samia was fortunate. She eventually found a religious leader who annulled the marriage. (Read more about her story here).
CARE Australia CEO Dr Julia Newton-Howes, who is dedicated to ending child marriages, commented that marrying at an early age has adverse mental effects. She said “by forcing a child into premature adulthood, early marriage thwarts her chances at education, endangers her health and cuts short her personal growth and development”. Furthermore, girls are unlikely to find fulfilment when they are denied the right to choose their own husband, and make their own decisions for their future, including following a career aspiration.
However, girls can stand up for their rights. Last year, a Sydney teenager sought legal action against her parents, who wanted to fly her to Lebanon. In September, the Family Court banned her from departing Australia.
The teenager felt her safety and well-being were threatened, and she was highly praised for her courage. Her legal representative, Mr Harman, commented that “she has indicated also in her evidence that she is fearful for her personal safety, that she has concerns as to what will occur in relation to her mother’s reaction once she becomes aware of these proceedings”. In the same year, a similar situation occurred. These stories serve as examples for potential (and current) victims of child marriages to defend themselves through legal avenues, if attempts to inform their parents that they feel unsafe or unhappy about proposed arranges. The issue of forced marriages should not be ignored. When the rights, well-being and happiness of children is put on the line, we should response to their needs.
Girls, like everyone else, have the right to live contently and to be free from harm and maltreatment, receive the fullest access to education and to choose their own paths. This is simply because they are entitled to enjoy their human rights just as much as everyone else.
Hsin-Yi is currently working as the Project Officer for the National Ethnic & Multicultural Broadcasters’ Council and also serves as the Communications Officer for Deakin Golden Key. She holds a Bachelor of Arts (Media/Communications) majoring in Media/Communications and International Relations, and a Bachelor of Arts (Honours) from Deakin University.