Sultana's Dream

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Sultana's Dream
April 2012


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Forced Marriage: The Debate We Have to Have

The issue of coercion and matrimony has been highlighted by the Federal Government’s recent announcement of its intention to introduce legislation that will criminalise forced marriage. Opposition Senator Helen Kroger has also initiated a Senate inquiry into the number of prospective marriage visas being issued to 17-year-old girls, many of them from Muslim-majority societies such as Lebanon and Turkey, citing concerns that some of the young women may have been forced into marriage.

The government preceded its draft legislation on forced marriage with the release of a discussion paper to examine ‘what legislative and non-legislative measures should be taken to combat forced and servile marriage in Australia’.  The discussion paper is careful to differentiate between forced and arranged marriages, describing forced marriages as being imposed through ‘physical, emotional or financial duress, deception by family members, spouse or others, the use of force or threats or severe pressure’. However, this distinction between forced and arranged marriages has been questioned by local and international researchers, who have said that they ‘can be better understood as two ends of a continuum, between which lie degrees of socio-cultural expectation, control, persuasion, pressure, threat and force’ (Anitha et al 2009: 165).

The issue of criminalisation is contentious among opponents of forced marriage. A survey undertaken by Dr Aisha Gill in the United Kingdom found that 50% of respondents from law enforcement, health and community welfare agencies did not favour the introduction of a specific criminal offence on forced marriage, while 63% regarded the existing civil measures (which include the establishment of the Forced Marriage Unit within the Foreign and Commonwealth Office) as sufficient. Those opposed to criminalisation cite concerns that the extreme reluctance of many women and girls to permanently sever ties with their families would render them reluctant to take steps that might result in prosecution.

The debate is set to continue in both the United Kingdom and Australia over the coming weeks and months, with Prime Minister David Cameron describing forcing someone into marriage as ‘little more than slavery’ and seeking to make it a criminal offence in England and Wales. (It is already an offence in Scotland). Let’s hope that Huma Yusuf is right when she says ‘one good thing to come out of the debate is, well, the debate itself.’

Shakira Hussein

Editor: Sultana’s Dream will be following the debate on forced marriages and proposed remedies in Australia and overseas in future issues.

Further reading:

Attorney-General’s Department. 2010. Discussion Paper: Forced and Servile Marriage.

‘Slavery-like offences to become crimes’ (Media release)

Gill, Aisha ‘Exploring the viability of creating a specific offence for forced marriage in England and Wales’, July 2011

Gupta, Rahila, ‘Mere posturing from the Tories on forced marriage’, The Guardian 13 October, 2011

Yusuf, Huma ‘Of Human Bondage’, New York Times, March 20, 2012