Hotline plan to help child brides

There are at least 60 child brides living in south-western Sydney, and many more girls are destined to be forced into under-age marriage, according to the head of a women's health centre.

Eman Sharobeem works with teenage girls in Fairfield, Liverpool and Cabramatta. Many of them have been married in the past three years.

She said that forced and under-age marriages would not stop until immigrants received education the moment that they stepped onto Australian soil. If they were not educated about Australian values and laws, new arrivals would continue to be taught by already settled communities who encouraged the illegal and archaic practice, she said.

Dr Sharobeem, who is the manager of the Immigrant Women's Health Service in Fairfield, said under-age marriage was carried out by many cultures across Asia, India and the Middle East and had nothing to do with religion.

Of the 60 cases she was aware of in the past three years, 20 of the girls had come to the Fairfield centre asking for help.

Once girls were married, there was intense pressure from their communities to remain where they are. ''If they leave they will be called sluts, home wreckers and [accused] of destroying the family,'' Dr Sharobeem said.

She wants help to set up a bilingual hotline that young girls can call for help or to report their abuse.

The 24-hour hotline is supported Family and Community Services Minister Pru Goward.

In February, a 26-year-old man was charged over an illegal marriage to a 12-year-old girl. The girl's father was also charged.

Dr Sharobeem said immigrants came to Australia with zero information, but were quickly taught not to allow their women to integrate.

''I've heard men with my own ears shouting [to new arrivals]: 'This country is about supporting women. It is our rule as head of the family to keep the women away from the bad influence of the country and not let them learn English.' ''

One woman recently came to her in tears and said her husband, who was still awaiting clearance in the detention centre, threatened to kill her if she learnt English or went out of the house without him.

''This is happening in Australia. We are not in the suburbs of Afghanistan - this is the suburbs of Sydney.''

A mother and father came into her office and proudly spoke of how they had just celebrated the wedding of their daughter in Iraq.

Dr Sharobeem had said to them, ''Fantastic! Where is she?'' They pointed to a petite and silent 14-year-old girl sitting next to them.

''I looked at the child in the room and I froze,'' Dr Sharobeem said.

The child bride was two months pregnant and in need of a doctor.

Not wanting to scare the family, Dr Sharobeem told them they had committed a crime but promised to keep their secret if they made an appointment for their daughter to see a nurse.

She planned on reporting the under-age marriage to police once she knew the girl was safe but her parents never returned. ''The father rang and said, 'Ah, doctor, my daughter lost the baby and we actually send her back to Iraq, so you don't need to worry about her.'''

The act of forced marriage was criminalised in Australia last year but Dr Sharobeem said the law had had no effect.

''Education is the key to stopping this.'' Dr Sharobeem has stopped parents from taking their children overseas to marry by alerting the Australian Federal Police and adding the names of children to the airport watch list.

She recently helped to annul the marriage of a 16-year-old Pakistani girl who was married against her will.

But she said she has to be careful with what she reported to maintain the trust of her clients and to ensure people would allow their daughters and wives to visit the centre.

The doors of the centre were open for all women and Dr Sharobeem said she would be waiting to help them, the way someone once helped her.

The Immigrant Women's Health Centre can be contacted on (02) 9726 4044.

smh.com.au

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