A forced marriage is when a person gets married without freely and fully consenting, because they have been coerced, threatened or deceived, or because they are incapable of understanding the nature and effect of a marriage ceremony, for reasons including age or mental capacity.
Some types of coercion are obvious and easy to identify, including the use of physical or sexual violence, or refusing to let somebody leave a particular place or location until they accept the marriage. Other types of coercion are less obvious because they involve psychological and emotional pressure. These types of coercion can include making a person feel responsible for, or ashamed of the consequences of not marrying, such as bringing shame on their family.
Forced marriage is a slavery-like practice, a form of gender-based violence and an abuse of human rights. Forced marriage is not limited to any particular cultural group, religion or ethnicity, and there are reports of forced marriage from all over the world. Anyone can be a victim of forced marriage, regardless of their age, gender or sexual orientation. While men and boys can be victims of forced marriage, most reported victims are young women and girls.
Australia's response to forced marriage
Australia's response to forced marriage forms part of the Australian Government's strategy to combat serious forms of exploitation, including human trafficking, slavery, and other slavery-like practices such as servitude and forced labour.
The Commonwealth Criminal Code Act 1995 (the Criminal Code) contains offences regarding forced marriage. It is illegal to cause a person to enter a forced marriage, and to be a party to a forced marriage. Being a party to a forced marriage means agreeing to marry a person who you know or suspect is a victim of forced marriage, unless you are a victim of the forced marriage yourself.
Australia's forced marriage offences
The crime of forced marriage can apply to:
- legally recognised marriages, as well as cultural or religious ceremonies and registered relationships
- marriages that occur in Australia (including where a person was brought to Australia to get married), as well as where a person is taken overseas to get married
- the conduct of any person involved in bringing about the forced marriage, including family members, friends, wedding planners and marriage celebrants.
The offences apply regardless of the age, gender, or sexual orientation of the victim.
The crime of forced marriage does not include:
- arranged marriage—when potential spouses are introduced through the involvement of a third party or family member, and both parties have consented to marry. Arranged marriages are legal in Australia.
- sham marriage—a fake marriage willingly entered into by both parties for fraudulent purposes.
- servile marriage—where a person is sold or inherited, or where a spouse is treated like a possession, including through ongoing exploitation within the relationship. This is an exploitative practice condemned by the Australian Government and is covered by separate offences.
Australia's forced marriage offences carry a maximum penalty of seven years' imprisonment, or nine years' imprisonment for an aggravated offence. An offence may be aggravated in several circumstances, including where the victim is under the age of 18. If the victim is under the age of 18 and is taken overseas for the purpose of forced marriage, the maximum penalty increases to 25 years' imprisonment.
Other laws relating to forced marriage
The Commonwealth Marriage Act 1961 includes provisions whereby a marriage may be void if the consent of a party was not real, or if a party was not of marriageable age.
The Marriage Act permits a marriage where one party is aged between 16 and 18 years of age, where there is both the required consent (usually parental) and an Australian court order from a judge or magistrate authorising the marriage. It is illegal for any person under the age of 16, or two people under the age of 18, to marry.
Sometimes children and young people are taken overseas to be forcibly married. This is against the law in Australia and the Australian Federal Circuit Court can make orders to ensure that a child cannot be taken overseas for this purpose. This means that the court is able to:
- prevent a passport being issued for a child
- require a person to surrender a child or accompanying adult's passport to the court
- prevent the removal of a child from Australia and place the child's name on the Airport Watch List.
If you think someone is in, or at immediate risk of a forced marriage, call the Australian Federal Police on 131 AFP (131 237). In an emergency, dial Triple Zero (000).
Signs that someone may be in, or at risk of forced marriage
If someone is in, or at risk of a forced marriage, they may find it hard to tell someone about their situation.
A combination of the following signs may indicate that a person is in a forced marriage, or at risk of being made to enter into a forced marriage:
- a sudden announcement that the person is engaged
- the person's older brothers or sisters stopped going to school or were married early
- the person's family have a lot of control over the person's life which doesn't seem normal or necessary (for example, the person is never allowed out or always has to have somebody else from the family with them)
- the person displays signs of depression, self-harming, social isolation and substance abuse
- the person seems scared or nervous about an upcoming family holiday overseas
- the person spends a long time away from school, university or work
- the person often does not come to, or suddenly withdraws from school, university or work
- the person does not have control over their income
- the person is unable to make significant decisions about their future without consultation or agreement from their parents or others
- there is evidence of family disputes or conflict, domestic violence, abuse or running away from home.
It can be difficult to identify the signs of forced marriage and you should seek help and advice as soon as possible. It is important that you always act in the best interests of the person in, or at risk of a forced marriage, including by being mindful of their safety as well as your own.
Forced marriage community pack
The Australian Government, in partnership with the National Roundtable on Human Trafficking and Slavery's Communication and Awareness Working Group, has developed a forced marriage community pack.
The pack provides information and resources on forced marriage and is available to download below:
Forced marriage community pack documents in community languages
The frequently asked questions sheet, safety plan and template and small fold-away booklet from the forced marriage community pack are available in the following community languages: Arabic, Dari, Farsi, Somali, Tamil and Urdu.
Forced marriage frequently asked questions sheet
Forced marriage safety plan and template
Forced marriage small fold-away booklet
Support and advice
If someone you know is in, or at risk of, a forced marriage you can seek help.
If there is an immediate danger, call Triple Zero (000). The Australian Federal Police (AFP) can provide initial advice to people who are in, or at risk of a forced marriage, including where a person needs help to make sure he or she won't be taken overseas. The AFP can also refer victims for support, including safe accommodation, financial support, legal advice and counselling.
Initial support is available for victims even where they don't want to assist with an investigation or prosecution. In cases where the victim is a child, the AFP will always act in their best interests. Contact with the AFP can be anonymous if you wish. You can call 131 AFP (131 237) or complete the online form on the human trafficking page on the AFP website.
My Blue Sky is an easy to use website dedicated to preventing and addressing forced marriage in Australia. The website provides people in, or at risk of, forced marriage with important information and links to support services, as well as useful resources for frontline responders, service providers and the general community.
For free, confidential legal advice about forced marriage, you can call the national forced marriage helpline on (02) 9514 8115. The My Blue Sky helpline operates Monday to Friday between 9am and 5pm, with an out of hours recorded message. You can also get help by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org or sending an SMS to 0481 070 844.
The National Sexual Assault, Domestic and Family Violence Counselling Service is a free 24/7 confidential telephone and online counselling service, staffed by professional counsellors to assist any person who has experienced, or is at risk of family and domestic violence and/or sexual assault. You can call 1800 RESPECT (1800 737 732) or visit the National Sexual Assault, Family and Domestic Violence Counselling Service website.
The following specialist community organisations may also be able to provide help and advice:
You may also wish to seek advice from the National Enquiry Centre for the Family Court of Australia and the Federal Circuit Court of Australia, or a family solicitor at your closest Legal Aid office.
The Translating and Interpreting Service (TIS National) can be contacted on 131 450.
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