The art of helping: Lessons for Australia in taking a mediation approach to forced marriage

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Throughout the month of February, Good Shepherd Australia New Zealand hosted Farwha Nielsen, a Danish cross-cultural dialogue and mediation specialist, in a series of events which explored an innovative model of family work to support individuals impacted by forced marriage. Here Laura Vidal (@lauraemilyvidal) of Good Shepherd Australia New Zealand discusses how the model could fill gaps in Australia’s current criminal response to forced marriage.

I first met Farwha Nielsen, the founder of Cross-Cultural Dialogue and Mediation, in 2017 when I was completing research on forced marriage as part of a Churchill Fellowship. Farwha has developed a mediation approach to resolving instances of forced marriage, in which a trained intermediary negotiates a resolution between the family and the child or young person. I had read about her work and its associated criticisms. However, I also saw huge potential for it to answer the question that had continued to be raised throughout my time working directly with victim-survivors of forced marriage—How can young women impacted by forced marriage avoid being married and still maintain a relationship with their family?

Current approaches to forced marriage

By way of brief introduction, forced marriage is defined in Australia as a practice of slavery. Criminalised in 2013 under the Commonwealth Criminal Code (1995) (Schedule 270 and 271), the AFP have received over 290 referrals of forced marriage cases.[1] The primary defining element of forced marriage in the criminal code is the absence of full and free consent – including consent that is coerced, misrepresented or withheld. Forced marriage primarily affects young women in Australia. They often approach authorities or service providers before the marriage has occurred to seek support in preventing their parents or others from forcing them to marry, which often involves an overseas trip for the marriage ceremony.[2]

Dominant discourse across the western world argues that engaging with families in the context of forced marriage increases risk, which could place the individual in greater danger. Statutory Guidance issued by the United Kingdom government states this explicitly. Whilst this may be the case for some situations, and the complexity within which forced marriage occurs is often high, assistance to individuals impacted by forced marriage must be offered along a continuum. The role of family and moreover the significant power families and communities have over young people’s lives must be both acknowledged and addressed. It is therefore essential to engage with families in order to effect longer-term attitude and behaviour change in relation to safeguarding young people.

Farwha Nielsen’s model developed out of a time in Denmark when responses were similar to those in place in Australia today for young people impacted by forced marriage. At the moment in Australia, the primary mechanism for children and young people to avoid a forced marriage is to leave their families and rebuild their lives independent of both their family and their social support structures. This is called an ‘exit-centred state initiative’.

What this approach does not acknowledge is that those at risk are reluctant to leave abusive families, and few if any want to initiate criminal or civil proceedings against family members. Young people who are faced with no choice other than to leave their families to avoid a forced marriage often return home. As this is typically not supported by the state-led intervention, it is done in secret, resulting in the young person experiencing higher levels of threat and violence without a safety net or awareness by a support structure of the contact between the young person and their family. In Denmark, two ‘honour killings’ came as a result of this dynamic. Further, it may place younger siblings in greater danger as the family seeks to increase control.

Learning from a different approach to forced marriage: Danish practitioner Farwha Nielsen (R) pictured with Good Shepherd Australia New Zealand CEO Stella Avramopoulos. Photo credit Laura Vidal.

Learning from a different approach to forced marriage: Danish practitioner Farwha Nielsen (R) pictured with Good Shepherd Australia New Zealand CEO Stella Avramopoulos. Photo credit Laura Vidal.

A mediation approach has challenges but also opportunities

During Ms Nielsen’s trip to Australia she presented her model, termed “cross-cultural transformative mediation,” to a wide cross-section of civil society and government representatives, including law enforcement. During these presentations she did not shy away from the challenges she has experienced in the implementation of this model, not just in Denmark but across Scandinavia. These included criticism from communities, non-government organisations and government. What stood out, however, was that for the small group of agencies prepared to pilot the model, the results truly spoke for themselves. Farwha estimates that over 90% of cases are resolved through dialogue and mediation, meaning both daughters and families are satisfied with the outcome, resulting in young people remaining in safe familiar relationships within boundaries constructed through the process. The results have now seen individuals who once denied the value of the model openly embracing the approach.

There is a growing acknowledgement in Australia that we must diversify our approach to intervention in cases of forced marriage. The current approach led by a criminal justice agenda is not sustainable; it is also incongruent with the growing acknowledgement across law and policy that this is an issue that extends beyond the current criminal framing of ‘slavery’ and intersects with gender and family violence.

Three key considerations for a model like Ms Nielsen’s arose during her time sharing knowledge with stakeholders in Australia:

(1) The service system must come together

Through Ms Nielsen’s presentations it became clear that the model requires a coordinated service system. Central to the success of the model is ensuring safety through a ‘joined-up’ approach with law enforcement and practitioners interfacing with families, and grounding interactions with families in a human rights approach. This requires that all parties to the conflict are considered, which clashes with a criminal justice approach and agenda. Australia’s current service system is fragmented, and this has implications beyond support for individuals impacted by forced marriage. It does however require, in this instance, significant efforts from willing agencies to work differently if a mediation approach to forced marriage intervention like was to be successful.

(2) The model is distinctly different to traditional mediation

The cross-cultural mediation method must be differentiated from traditional forms of mediation. It is defined by Ms Nielsen as “a method suitable for use in setting our social relationships that are constricted by gender and age hierarchies. The method seeks to promote dialogue and understanding between the older and younger generations by taking the power imbalance into consideration…for these reasons it is a method quite different from ordinary mediation”.

There are four phases to the mediation and/or dialogue model:

1.     Investigative phase—this can be likened to an in-depth psycho-social assessment and occurs before mediation begins. It is important here that the young person is afforded full protection with a safety plan and safety net of professionals involved.

2.     Mediation and dialogue phase—this is work directly with the family, where everybody has the opportunity to express their view on the conflict. Unlike traditional mediation, the individual facing a forced marriage does not meet face-to-face with the family during this phase. Negotiations are conducted by a trained mediator and contracts are established before family members are bought back together.

3.     Reconciliation phase—this happens based on the outcomes achieved through the dialogue and mediation phase. It requires individuals to be true to the agreements committed to during the mediation and dialogue phase.

4.     Evaluation and follow-up phase—often the least prioritised, the evaluation and follow-up phase is critical to ensuring longevity of the conflict resolution. It is helpful here if a statutory agency has capacity to commit to the follow-up, and/or support another agency to do so. This phase allows the identification of any difficulties the family may be having and to re-instate mediation and dialogue if the situation becomes unsafe.

It is important to understand how the model is different to existing mediation models in Australia (e.g., alternative dispute resolution within the family court) and the value that it brings to resolving high-level conflicts that otherwise would result in family breakdown, greater service system dependency and/or criminal offences.

(3) Skilling up our workforce

The success of this model requires a highly skilled workforce. It requires a dedicated therapeutic approach coupled with practitioners with sound understanding of complex family dynamics. It is of added value if they have some understanding of cultural context. Importantly, individuals delivering the mediation and/or dialogue must be transparent and genuine in their interactions with families including in situations where their behaviour may be harmful to others, or conflict with personal or organisational value systems.

If we want to help, we must think differently

To conclude, Ms Nielsen draws on Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard as the foundation to her approach, which is worth quoting here:

“If one is truly to succeed in leading a person to a specific place, one must first and foremost take care to find them where they are, and begin there.

This is the secret to the entire art of helping. Anyone who cannot do this is themselves is under a delusion if they think they are able to help someone else. In order to truly help someone else, I must understand more than they—but certainly first and foremost understand what they understand.

If I do not do that, then my greater understanding does not help them at all.

If I nevertheless want to assert my greater understanding, then it is because I am vain or proud, then basically instead of benefiting them I really want to be admired by them.

But all true helping begins with humbling. The helper must first humble themselves under the person they want to help; and thereby understand that to help is not to dominate but to serve. That to help is not to be the most dominating, but the most patient. That to help is a willingness for the time being to put up with being in the wrong and not understand what the other understands”.[3]

 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.



[1] Obtained via FOI by Fairfax Media, January 2019.

[2] Segrave, M. Milivojevic, S. and Pickering, S. “Sex trafficking and Modern Slavery: The Absence of Evidence”, Oxford UK, Routledge, (2018)

[3] English translation by Hong & Hong, ‘The point of view for my work as an author’,  Princeton University Press, 1998:45