Australia’s response to early and forced marriage: Better, but still lacking

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In today’s post, Laura Vidal, who recently joined Good Shepherd Australia New Zealand, discusses best practice solutions to early and forced marriage, particularly in light of recent Australia policy changes. Due to her work in both service delivery and policy responses to individuals who have experienced human trafficking and slavery, Laura received a 2016 Winston Churchill Memorial Trust Fellowship, which took her on a study tour to 6 countries (Sri Lanka, United Kingdom, Denmark, United States, Canada and Kenya) to inform responses to early and forced marriage.

Forced marriage was introduced into Australia’s Commonwealth slavery offences in 2013. The practice is defined and understood by this legislation as a practice of slavery—a forced marriage is ‘a marriage entered into without the free and full consent of one or both of the parties involved, as a result of coercion, threat or deception’.

Whilst awareness and reporting has increased since criminalisation, the practice is not a new phenomenon; the earliest report of forced marriage in Australia dates back to 1994. The true extent of the issue remains unknown as there is little available comprehensive data and, because it takes place within the context of the family unit, is likely underreported. The National Children’s and Youth Law Centre, in their study on child marriage, reported that between 2011 and 2013, 250 Australian cases were identified by research respondents. In 2016-2017, the Australian Federal Police Human Trafficking Team received 70 referrals of early and forced marriage, bringing the total since criminalisation to 174.

Momentum and growing evidence suggests a need to change the way in which Australia responds to the practice of early and forced marriage. There is a greater realisation that Australia’s current approach, one which is defined and rooted in a criminal justice paradigm, is falling short of both preventing the practice and ensuring that individuals have adequate and appropriate support. Until recently, the framework required individuals who wished to access a government-funded support program to engage with federal law enforcement, which many victims were reluctant to do. On February 15th, Assistant Minister for Home Affairs Alex Hawke announced a pilot project which de-links the support program for individuals facing forced marriage from engagement with law enforcement. The difficulty remains however, that referral to the support program is still via federal law enforcement. The findings of this research also support earlier work carried out by Good Shepherd Australia New Zealand, in the report ‘The Right to Refuse,’ noting that this approach is inadequate and often not appropriate or in the best interests of the individual at risk. It can also be said that the current framework is limiting people from coming forward and reporting early and forced marriage and therefore contributing to the lack of available data about the size and scope of the issue.

Forced marriage is an often hidden form of violence against women and girls. Recent changes in legislation are an improvement over a criminal response but more can be done.

Forced marriage is an often hidden form of violence against women and girls. Recent changes in legislation are an improvement over a criminal response but more can be done.

Four key gaps in prevention and support that were identified through my field work detailing experiences of government and non-government stakeholders were the impetus for the research and shaped the exploratory framework:

1.    Links between support and participation in a criminal justice process;

2.    Available and appropriate accommodation;

3.    A centralised and coordinated approach; and

4.    Engaging communities in behaviour change.

These gaps linked with four corresponding aims which guided my interviews with 45 research participants, including:

1.    Exploring intervention and practice frameworks implemented internationally, that have proven to prevent forced marriage from occurring while enhancing the wellbeing of individuals;

2.    Assessing learning and opportunities from others to strengthen practice in Australia;

3.    Seeking answers to questions from government and non-government partners, including how changes can be implemented within the Australian context; and

4.    Developing a model of best practice that prevents early and forced marriage from occurring and providing support to individuals at risk.

My research participants were a combination of survivors, practitioners, government representatives, non-government representatives and policy experts. The selection of participants also contributed to an intentional emphasis on non-legislative responses and models that employ an inter-disciplinary and cross-agency approach. This approach was adopted to support the notion that criminalisation alone will not end the practice, and that criminal justice outcomes are enhanced when people feel adequately supported and safe.

The data gathered through the research indicates that Australia does not have the most effective framework to ensure prevention and protection of individuals at risk of early and forced marriage. Additionally, to create effective practice, governments and community responders must approach intervention as more than a legal problem to be solved. Doing so would account for the intersections between early and forced marriage and the complex nature of familial relationships that are often at the centre of the practice.

Evidence has shown that approaches which offer alternatives to that of legal recourse lead to higher levels of community engagement and comprehensive victim-led interventions. Legislation cannot be introduced in isolation and if the aim is to change attitudes and behaviours, engagement with the community cannot lead with conversations of prosecution. Leading with the law has not achieved any measurable change in knowledge, attitudes or behaviours. In contrast, the research finds that effective interventions to both prevent the practice and provide adequate protections for individuals at risk of forced marriage are built on partnership and establishing shared value.

Five recommendations summarise the key findings of the research and it is these recommendations that outline a roadmap for future advocacy and policy development. If adopted, the recommendations go a long way to prevent the practice of early and forced marriage from occurring and protecting individuals at risk. Based on the experiences of others, the recommended approaches will also result in increased participation in legal pathways and the achievement of optimal victim outcomes.

The first recommendation will be a key focus for me in my role with Good Shepherd Australia New Zealand. Without recognising the intersections and challenging the practice of early and forced marriage as solely a practice of slavery ignores the inherently gendered nature of the issue and how it disproportionately impacts on women and girls. Full recognition of the complexity of the issue will ensure that more appropriate interventions are in place, ensuring that women and girls can enjoy the full freedom of their human rights.


1.    Expand the definition of child, early and forced marriage to include intersections with gender-based violence, family violence and child protection. This will improve community engagement and ensure comprehensive service delivery frameworks are developed.

2.    Develop and implement access to informed and coordinated support.

3.    Create pathways that ensure victims and survivors have access to appropriate and targeted support services that prioritises their safety and wellbeing over engagement with federal law enforcement.

4.    Implement a national policy framework that provides access to safety and support regardless of willingness and capacity to report concerns to law enforcement.

5.    Engage communities in an approach founded on partnership and inclusion.

You can access the full research report here

This post is part of the Women's Policy Action Tank initiative to analyse government policy using a gendered lens. View our other policy analysis pieces here.