Why are children at greater risk of Forced Marriage during COVID19? 

The global shutdown of schools and widespread economic insecurity due to the pandemic, has put our children at risk of forced marriage, abuse and modern slavery.

We are all struggling with the enormity of change. How to keep working, pay bills and have a better social life. But while we adapt, we also need to put part of our attention on the plight of others who are worse off. We need to care for them.

If we focus only on ourselves, we lose a bit of our humanity. Our mental health improves when we think outside of ourselves. Our own problems fade a little, when we consider the troubles others are in.

Children at Risk of Forced Marriage and Abuse

Children are some of the most vulnerable people in our society. Right now, there is a global risk of serious damage to an entire generation.

The International Labour Organisation (ILO) estimates that about 152 million children, aged between 5 and 17, were subject to child labour in 2016, out of which 62 million were in Asia and the Pacific. Every year, about 12 million girls under the age of 18, or one girl every three seconds, is married. COVID lockdowns and post COVID poverty will make these figures seem small.

Right now, children are not able to go to school. In many countries and children are being forced into slavery like conditions. Some are forced to work, some are being sold for work or sex, and many children are being forced into marriage.

Poverty has always been a major contributory factor in child marriage. But now, with the worldwide economic fallout starting and anticipated to get worse, poverty levels are rising.

Some Stats and Facts

The United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) has estimated that COVID-19 will hinder efforts to end child marriage and it could result in an additional 13 million child marriages, depending on how long lockdown continues.

A campaign group, Girls Not Bride, says children forced into marriage deprives them of education and opportunities. It jeopardises their health and increases the risks of exploitation, sexual violence, domestic abuse and death in childbirth. Organisations advocating against child marriage are worried many girls will never be able to go back to school post-pandemic.

First World Countries are not Exempt

But it easy to think this is only happening in third world countries. It is not. British charities have seen an increase in calls for help from girls afraid their parents will force them into marriages after the lockdown ends. U.K. charity Karma Nirvana said it has seen a 150% increase in teens calling over fears of forced marriages, while Freedom Charity reported a 50% spike in calls for help.

In Australia, the legal age for marriage is 18. However, under the Marriage Act 2011 a 16 year old may apply to a judge or magistrate in a State or Territory to marry a person of marriageable age. In February 2103, the Australian Parliament passed the Crimes Legislation Amendment (Slavery, Slavery-like Conditions and People Trafficking) Act. This introduced the criminalisation of ‘forced’ marriage. Forced means without consent. It is different to ‘arranged’ marriage where consent is given.

The Freedom Hub and Forced Child Marriages

In 2020 so far, The Freedom Hub has had more children at risk of forced marriage referrals, than in the past five years combined.

“These are 15 and 16 year olds who have grown up in Australia, realising they don’t want to be wives so young. They want to go to university and choose a career like their peers at school.” Sally Irwin Founder /MD

And why wouldn’t they? They have grown up in the ‘lucky country’. Their parents or grandparents came here for a better life, to fill skills we needed or to escape inhuman treatment from a government with no human rights. New data reveals that since January 2017, 171 cases of forced child marriage have been subject to AFP investigation. Children aged just six and seven are included in this alarming figure.

However, this number is just the tip of the iceberg. Most don’t come forward due to fear and very few want to give evidence against family members. Many don’t even get the chance and they just disappear. We have a lot work to do in our own backyard.

‘In one case reported, a girl who had already been taken overseas to be married off was able to get to an Australian Embassy to seek help, stating her passport had been confiscated by her parents. However, because she was a minor, the consular officials could not issue her a new passport without parental consent or without approval by an “Approved Senior Officer”, described as “often a very lengthy referral process”. Read more.

The Freedom Hub Survivor School, has a specialised ‘youth pathway’ program which helps children at risk of forced marriage, finish their studies and go to university or TAFE if they wish.

What can you do to help these Children?

It is easy to be overwhelmed with the millions of people in crisis during COVID. Daily change can also challenge or overwhelm us. But children with no rights need our help right here in Australia.

Supporting the work the Freedom Hub does to protect and help them, is a simple step you can take. With the tax benefits of donating to our charity, you can know that even a small investment can yield a huge reward to giving a young person a chance at a happy life in our country. Help now.

“Our ‘one on one’ tutoring, companionship through their adolescence and peer support program with others in the same situation; gives these children the family, community and support they need to make it alone.” Sally Irwin