An Australian woman claims that she repeatedly told authorities that girls as young as 12 at a Muslim school were being forced into illegal marriages to much older men, only for her pleas to be ignored, The Sydney Morning Herald is reporting.
Bee al-Darraj, 24, fled Iraq at the age of 15 when she was being forced into a marriage to an older man. She made her way to Sydney, where she enrolled at al-Faisal High School in the Sydney suburb of Auburn. There, she says, she witnessed young girls as young as 12 being forced into marriage to much older men, according to The Daily Mail.
“They would come to school, a 15-year-old getting dropped off by her 30-year-old husband.”
al-Darraj says she was aware of one girl, who was 14 years old, who gave birth in a public hospital while her 28-year-old husband signed the birth certificate. No one apparently batted an eye – until she showed signs of being a victim of domestic violence, that is.
“She was still in school but nothing was done until he started to beat her., and then she was put in a safe house.”
Bee said she tried to notify anybody and everybody in the Australian government who would listen — the Australian Federal Police, the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, and the NSW Department of Family and Community Services — only for her pleas to be ignored.
So why have Australian authorities seemingly turned a blind eye to child marriages happening in their country?
You may be surprised to learn that, until 2013, such child marriages weren’t even illegal in Australia. Now that the law has been updated, however, enforcement remains spotty. For one thing, the law isn’t retroactive — so the marriages of child brides in Australia who were married before 2013 aren’t illegal. For another thing, if an underage girl is flown to another country to be married off, it’s not a violation of Australian law.
The biggest problem, however, seems to be a matter of culture. Although culturally and legally Australia rejects child marriage, so like just about every other developed, culturally-Christian Western nation, Australian authorities are reluctant to inject their attitudes of right and wrong into a foreign culture.
Anti Slavery Australia director Jennifer Burn says that Australia generally sees marriage as a private, family issue. Similarly, the Australian government wants to respect the cultures of its immigrants.
“The reasons behind an attempt to instigate a forced marriage are really very complex, but sometimes involve perceptions of traditional culture and community expectations.”
There’s also the matter of breaking up families; if a teenage girl is married to an older man and already has children with him, is it best for the children to be forcibly separated from their fathers?
“These are issues that really require a nuanced and respectful response, but at the same time we’ve got to be ready to provide protection. It’s a child protection issue. It’s child trafficking.”
Save the Children, a charity aimed at bettering the lives of children worldwide, says that one girl under the age of 15 is married every seven seconds. The problem is particularly pronounced in places like Afghanistan, Syria, Yemen, India, and Somalia.
“Girls who marry too early often can’t attend school, and are more likely to face domestic violence, abuse and rape. They fall pregnant and are exposed to STIs including HIV. They also bear children before their bodies are fully prepared, which can have devastating consequences on their and their baby’s health.”
Back in Australia, Bee al-Darraj is begging the Australian government to step up its efforts to prevent child marriage.
“It’s child trafficking and they know it’s wrong, but it’s like they have no idea what to do.”
How do you think Australia should handle the matter of child brides?
[Featured Image by Paula Bronstein/Getty Images]