While forced marriage has been illegal in Australia since 2013, it hasn’t been entirely stamped out — and it can have long-term negative impacts on individuals and families. A new initiative is raising awareness and offering hope.
Forced marriage affects millions of girls, women, boys and men globally, including in Australia. In contrast to arranged marriage, forced marriage occurs when someone is tricked, coerced or threatened with physical harm rather than freely consenting to a marriage.
“Forced marriage is an insidious and hidden crime,” says the Minister for Justice, the Hon Michael Keenan. “It is a slavery-like practice, an abuse of fundamental human rights and there is no place for it in Australia.”
My Blue Sky, Australia’s first website dedicated to the prevention of forced marriage, was launched on 25 November 2015 – the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women.
An initiative of Anti-Slavery Australia, the only specialist legal research and policy centre of its kind in Australia, based in the Faculty of Law at the University of Technology Sydney, My Blue Sky aims to educate, raise awareness about and offer advice to people in or at risk of forced marriage. The website includes a free national legal service provided through email and text to assist people at risk of or in a forced marriage.
Anti-Slavery Australia Director, Associate Professor Jennifer Burn, says the website will provide a much needed portal for those seeking help. It provides information about forced marriage, including the law in Australia, the difference between forced and arranged marriage, safety planning, referral organisations and available support services.
Following extensive national community consultation, the site was developed to meet the needs of a wide range of audiences and includes dedicated pages for young children and teenagers, teachers and health professionals, and people who are worried about a friend who may be forced to marry.
There is also important contact information for people who may be travelling overseas and are concerned they will be forced to marry once outside of Australia, as well as those who may have already been taken overseas.
Translations are available for parts of the website in six languages with links to the Forced Marriage Community Pack produced by the Commonwealth Attorney-General’s Department.
“People facing forced marriage may only have one opportunity to reach out for help,” says project manager and lawyer Joanne Wilton. “We chose the name My Blue Sky to symbolise freedom… a rising above circumstances, a bright future and the fact that help is within reach.”
According to Burn, “Forced marriage in Australia is underreported and misunderstood.
“Whilst there are no reliable statistics on the number of forced marriages in Australia, over 60 suspected cases of forced marriage have been referred to the Australian Federal Police since forced marriage became a crime in Australia in 2013. Research suggests that the numbers are much greater than these reports.”
During its first four months, the My Blue Sky website had over 10,000 views including 2,298 unique visitors. Since the launch of the website and a linked social media campaign, Anti-Slavery Australia has also seen an increase in the number of people contacting them for a referral – either for themselves or a friend – as well as increased inquiries from counsellors and social workers.
“I am very pleased with the response so far,” says Wilton. “We are happy that whilst it is still early days, every additional like on Facebook is potentially a person in danger of forced marriage, or their friend who is concerned about them, getting information.”
Photographer (J Burn and E Christopher): Hannah Jenkins
Inset photo supplied by MyBlueSky.org