Today, the marriage of an Australian schoolgirl is being planned. The girl won’t know about the marriage until it is imminent. She will not have a say in the marriage.
Shamira was 15 and in Year 10 at a secondary school in Australia. She wanted to be a nurse when she finished Year 12.
She was not looking forward to the end of term three because she feared that the ‘holiday’ planned to her parents’ homeland was to marry a much older cousin.
Shamira became depressed and began self-harming. Her friend convinced her to tell a teacher what was planned. The teacher contacted the AFP who intervened to stop the marriage. But the cost was high. She no longer lives with her family and has left school.
Shamira has been hospitalised twice after serious self-harming and she is still under pressure from her family to go through with the forced marriage. She is now part of a Red Cross program offering 200 days support.
Though her life has been changed forever, Shamira hopes to become a nurse and to fall in love with someone she has the freedom to choose.
Shamira’s teacher had undergone ACRATH (Australian Catholic Religious Against Trafficking in Humans) training and was equipped when Shamira disclosed her situation in 2017.
Each year in Australia girls are forced to marry. Some are taken overseas to be married and others are married in Australia. The exact numbers are unknown because very few girls report a forced marriage, though the Australian Federal Police (AFP) have investigated 174 cases of forced marriage since 2013 when the legislation banning forced marriage was introduced.
A three-year grant from Mary Ward International Australia to ACRATH will facilitate the implementation of a forced marriage education program in at least 40 schools and vulnerable CALD communities across Victoria, Queensland and Western Australia.
ACRATH’s forced marriage worker, Liz Payne, has spent the last four years working in schools with teachers and students and believes the MWIA funding will have a positive impact on vulnerable girls, young women and school communities.
Liz states “Prevention-based education is imperative if we want to reduce forced marriage in this country. Educating teachers means they will know what to do when a student, or the student’s friend discloses an imminent forced marriage. It means the student who has been forced into a marriage, even if she has left the country, knows where to go for help and it means front line responders can develop common response pathways”.
The prevention education is based on the ACRATH resource kit, My Rights – My Future forced marriage. The learning material has been developed with nine pilot schools, and numerous government and non-government organisations as part of an Australian forced marriage pilot project in 2015, funded by the Australian Attorney-General’s Department.
“Forced marriage is a traditional practice of some CALD and faith-based populations, so it is a complex and sensitive issue to address, but needs to be addressed nevertheless as it is a harmful practice and illegal in Australia. We want to focus on building trust with relevant communities so that we can engage more fully with them on this critical issue facing young women,” Liz said.
Since developing the education program, ACRATH has worked closely with other agencies including Anti-Slavery Australia, AFP and Red Cross, believing that collaboration brings about best responses – harm minimisation and support for victim/survivors.
The MWIA funding also means ACRATH can train at least 20 priests, ministers of religion and marriage celebrants to ensure they can detect a forced marriage and know how to assist.
Government Departments in at least two states will also be made aware of the urgent need for emergency as well as long-term accommodation and support for young people, especially girls and young women who have faced a forced marriage and require a path to recovery.
“Details of the issues we take to these two state Departments will be informed by what we learn from our work with schools,” Liz said.
“This partnership with Mary Ward International Australia has the potential to make a real difference to the lives of vulnerable young women who, when facing a forced marriage, are also forced to leave their education and the life and future they want.”