Forced marriage

What is forced marriage?

A marriage must be entered into with the full and free consent of both people.

A forced marriage is one in which one or both parties do not (or cannot, for example, because they are minors) fully consent to the marriage.

Forced marriage victims may be subjected to physical and emotional abuse, isolation, and threats of violence in order to force them into the marriage. Financial abuse (taking away wages or allowances) can also be a factor. In some cases, people may be taken overseas without knowing that they are to be married. When they arrive in the country their passport(s) may be taken by their family to try to stop them from returning home. Victims of forced marriage may be subjected to further criminal behaviour within the marriage, such as rape and physical violence.

Is forced marriage a criminal offence?

On March 8, 2013 new laws that strengthen Australia's response to slavery, slavery-like practices and human trafficking came into effect, including new offences that criminalise forced marriage. In certain circumstances, these laws will have extraterritorial application, meaning they apply to actions carried out overseas.

According to the new legislation, a forced marriage is one where, because of coercion, threat or deception, a person enters into a marriage without freely and fully consenting.

There are two separate offences:

  • causing another person to enter into a forced marriage, and
  • being a party to a forced marriage.

It is very important to note that the offence of being a party to a forced marriage does not apply to a person who is a victim.

For the purposes of the offences, the term 'marriage' includes any marriage which is considered to be a marriage by the parties and their community. This includes a very broad range of marriages—for example, polygamous marriages; or religious marriages that may not otherwise meet the requirements of a valid marriage under Australian law.

In certain circumstances, the offences will apply where the forced marriage occurs overseas – including where part of the crime happens in Australia, or where it is committed by an Australian citizen or resident. This ensures Australian citizens who travel overseas to engage in such activities are still subject to tough penalties.

The new criminal offences carry significant penalties, including imprisonment. The maximum penalty for forced marriage is four years' imprisonment, or seven years' imprisonment where there are aggravating factors (such as where the victim is under 18 years old, or is subjected to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment). The perpetrators may also be charged with human trafficking in cases where they send a child overseas or bring someone to Australia for the purpose of forced marriage. The maximum penalty in these cases is up to 25 years' imprisonment.

The laws protect Australian citizens, residents and international visitors to Australia regardless of visa status.

What about arranged marriages?

Forced marriages differ from arranged marriages. In an arranged marriage, the families take a leading role in choosing the marriage partner, but the choice of whether to enter the marriage is left to both people.

Therefore, the new offences do not criminalise arranged marriages because in such marriages the parties have the right to accept or refuse the marriage. The offences also do not apply where a person marries consensually but then is subjected to exploitation, abused, raped, or otherwise victimised – although this conduct may constitute a different offence.

What is a typical forced marriage scenario?

Summer holidays are the peak time for young people to be taken overseas. In some cases they are taken on what they have been told is a holiday to visit family overseas, but in fact a marriage has been planned. Once overseas, victims are often even more isolated than they might have been in Australia and getting help is more difficult.

Case study

Jasmine, a 16-year old Australian citizen went to visit her grandparents in a country with no Australian mission (Embassy, High Commission, or Consulate), not knowing that her parents had arranged for her to marry a 35-year old cousin. Despite her repeated refusals to marry, the family was determined to go ahead with the marriage especially since a large dowry was at stake.

Jasmine was subjected to verbal and physical abuse, the family took her passport and she had no return ticket to Australia. However, she was able to contact the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade's Consular Emergency Centre to seek assistance. The Australian Government was able to get in touch with Jasmine's close friends and trusted family members (not involved in planning the marriage) in Australia and with their assistance managed to bring Jasmine home, where she received further assistance and support.

Jasmine was lucky; however, no two cases will be alike and what the Australian Government can do to help will depend on the circumstances of each case.

Consider before going overseas

  • If you suspect something is not right and you do not want to go overseas because of a planned forced marriage, call the Australian Federal Police (AFP) at 131 237. Once you are overseas, it will be much harder to get help.
  • You are also welcome to contact the 24/7 Consular Emergency Centre at 1300 555 135 for advice or SMS at +61 421 269 080.
  • If you have no choice and end up going, take some money with you in Australian dollars and in the local currency, a spare mobile phone (with roaming facility), a copy of your passport and tickets, Consular Emergency Centre's contact information, and contact information for the Australian mission responsible for the country you are visiting.
  • Leave a copy of your passport, itinerary, and contact information with a trusted friend/family member while overseas.
  • If you are a dual national, please visit the Dual National page for information on how dual nationality may affect your trip and services the Australian Government is able to provide.
  • Always remember to register your travel and read the travel advice and subscribe to receive free email notifications of updates.

If you are overseas and have been or suspect you may be forced into a marriage

  • You or a trusted friend/family member should contact the nearest Australian overseas mission. You can also contact the Consular Emergency Centre at +61 2 6261 3305 or SMS at +61 421 269 080.
  • Consider your own safety when trying to make contact for help. If you believe your life is in danger, find a safe place where you can call the Consular Emergency Centre or Australian mission.
  • If you are an Australian citizen or permanent resident, and don't have access to your passport, we can advise you on the requirements for obtaining a new travel document.
  • A consular official will work with you and your trusted friend/family member to help you if you don't have a place to stay and don't have enough money to fly home. Please remember that our capacity to assist you is influenced by local laws and conditions, international rules governing consular work, and by the cooperation offered by persons and organisations outside the Australian Government.

Do you know someone who may be forced into a marriage?

If so, you should call the AFP at 131 AFP (131 237). Calls can be made anonymously. The AFP has a dedicated team to help prevent the occurrence of forced marriage under their human trafficking program.

The more information you provide the better. For example, if you have a photograph, a passport number or contact details of where someone you know may be staying, an email address or phone number, that can be of real help in finding the person.

You may also use AFP's online form to report a forced marriage. All information is treated in great confidence.

Support for victims of forced marriage

Whether an attempted or actual forced marriage occurred in Australia or overseas, once in Australia anyone who is a suspected victim of a forced marriage may be eligible to access the Government's Support for Trafficked People Program. Under the program, victims have access to accommodation, counselling, medical treatment, legal and migration advice, interpreter services and other benefits.

Possible victims may be identified through a number of avenues, including immigration officials, law enforcement agencies, NGOs, hospitals, medical practitioners, consulates and government departments. Possible victims are referred to the AFP for assessment and, where appropriate, entry to the Support Program.

FaHCSIA administers the Support Program, which is delivered by a contracted case management service provider, currently the Australian Red Cross. Red Cross provides a 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year national response within all States and Territories in Australia.

Other available resources and further reading

A list of organisations that provide help for victims of trafficking and forced marriage is located in the AFP's Anti-Human Trafficking Community Resource.

Please note that some of the links below are provided for information only and do not necessarily reflect Australian government's domestic framework.