Sarah* and I met up at a secret location in western Sydney. A place no one would recognise her, her car, or most of all the fact that she’s talking to a journalist.
She is a beautiful Pakistani-Australian girl, and at just 19 years of age, she cries uncontrollably as she tells me about her wedding day. A union that took place just a few weeks ago. A matrimony she objected to. A future she has no say in.
Despite her trauma, she has decided to speak out, in hope that her story might help others avoid such a devastating fate. “I don’t want to be married. I don’t know what to do. I am scared of what is going to happen if I try to leave”.
Her husband is many years her senior, she not in love with this man, she says, “I don’t even like him”. Instead, her heart remains with her non-Muslim ex-boyfriend which is a relationship her parents disapproved of.
You might be wondering why she didn’t just pack her bags and leave and tell her parents to back off, I asked her these very questions.
“You have no one to run away to. Where are you going to go? Who is going to support you? In our culture family is so important.”
Sarah sobbed for most of her wedding day, she refused to have her hair or make up done and says, “I kept saying no, no, no I don’t want to and they kept saying yes, yes do this for the family it’s the right thing to do.”
During my six month investigation into forced marriage, young women I’d hope to interview would “disappear”. Their mobile numbers were disconnected, their employment terminated, their lives changed. We would later find out that the “contract had been done” and that they were married and now in “lock down”.
Dr Eman Sharobeem is an Immigrant Women’s Health expert, she says there’s an important distinction that needs to be made when marriages are investigated. “The difference between forced and arranged marriage is very clear. If you arrange for two people to marry and they consent that is one thing. But when you force two people and say do it or else. Do it or there will be consequence, that is forced marriage.”
There’s simply no way of knowing just how many Australians are forced into marriage each year. What we do know is they are happening on our shores and in our suburbs. This is no longer an issue we can say happens on the other side of the world where democracy and women’s rights are yet to be achieved. Welfare workers and legal experts have their work cut out for them.
Jennifer Burn of Anti-Slavery Australia says forced marriages are a growing problem, and despite the good efforts of many community organisations, it’s a crime they can’t tackle on their own.
Earlier this year, the Federal Government introduced legislation which criminalises forced marriage. The penalty can be imprisonment of up to seven years. The Australian Federal Police and the Attorney General’s department are investigating cases, but it could take months, if not years, before there are any prosecutions.
Dozens of cases have come across Dr Eman Sharobeem’s desk. She too was forced into marriage at a young age and works tirelessly to aid those who are as helpless as she once was.
Currently, she is caring for two young girls, aged 14 and 15 whose families are planning their marriages abroad. Dr Sharobeem fears that a “family holiday” overseas will translate into a one-way trip down the aisle.
And that’s exactly what happened to Michael-El Bacha. He was just 19 years old when a visit to Lebanon led to him to being coerced into marrying a 16 year old girl. He has vivid and traumatic memories of being made to walk into the church and down the aisle. He looks afraid and alone in his wedding video.
“I was forced into a marriage because I believe they knew I was gay and before I had the chance to discover who I was.” Just days after his wedding, he was hospitalised. He had suffered a nervous breakdown.
Michael is now penning his experience in a book that shares intimate and painful details of his struggle to leave the marriage, knowing that he would also be leaving his extended family and community approval behind. And the toll played out over years, in the form of drug, alcohol and sex abuse and even a suicide attempt.
New South Wales Community Relationship Commissioner Dr Stepan Kerkyasharian says, “Forced marriage is an evil in our society that needs to be stamped out as soon as it is discovered.”
I got first glimpse of the findings of Australia’s first ever inquiry into trafficking and forced marriage. Dr Kerkyasharian is appalled by what it unravelled. “This is not something that can be swept under the carpet, the consequences of forced marriage can be quite catastrophic.”
Just like the Australian man who married a woman from Iraq and brought her back with the promise a “new life”.
“When she came to Australia she was locked up in a hotel room and the husband then started bringing his friends and acquaintances and forcing his newly acquired wife into sexual servitude, into prostitution.”
The inquiry found that one of the greatest challenges is raising public awareness about a frighteningly real, yet very covert problem.
His report recommends a government body specific to forced marriage, a public awareness campaign and a 24 hotline, based on a model in the United Kingdom.
The final paper will be released next month, and the overwhelming message is that there’s plenty to be done, and it needs to happen quickly as the casualties of these unions continues to mount.
But newlywed Sarah feels that she’s run out of options, “I just wasn’t ready and I think that I could have found someone who I can be with and be happy with, someone I can love. But I think it’s too late”.
Antoinette Lattouf reported on this issue for Channel Ten. You can watch the first part of her report for Ten Eyewitness News here and the second part here.
*Antoinette Lattouf is a Ten News reporter. She’s an award winning and Walkley nominated journalist. She has worked at the SBS, ABC and Triple J. Antoinette is a mother and a wife. You can follow her on Twitter: @antoinette_TEN.