By: Megan Hall
Child marriage is simply marriage when a person is younger than 18. Child marriage causes serious harm to its victims, mentally and physically. Often, young brides are forced into physical and sexual roles they are not prepared for and their health and education suffer. Although illegal in many countries, including Australia, the laws are rarely enforced. However, in September, the first man was sentenced under Australia’s laws.
Australian laws against forced marriage, including child marriage, were enacted in 2013. The laws prohibit people from both marrying a child and forcing a child to be married. Thus, not only the adult groom who married a girl would be criminally liable, but also her parents if they forced her into the marriage and the person who conducted the marriage, especially if he was aware of the child status of the victim.
This first prosecution was of a man in his 30s who married a girl who was 14. The man was a Burmese asylum seeker and a persecuted minority in his home country of Myanmar. The ceremony was an Islamic religious ceremony and took place in Melbourne. He was sentenced to 12 months in prison and had already spent a year in custody by the time he was sentenced. He pled guilty to illegally marriage an underage person after prosecutors dropped charges of sexual assault. The judge factored in to her considerations how the man knew the marriage was illegal but still performed the ceremony. The Imam who performed the ceremony was charged with conduct that forced a child into marriage.
Child marriage creates numerous issues because it is non-consensual and involves a child. Child marriage is a form of forced marriage and can be seen as a form of gender-based violence. Child marriages often occur due to coercion, not force, and thus can be difficult to bright-line classify as forced marriages because the child can consent. However, this consent if most likely due to coercion and threats and is thus not truly consent.
Further, child marriage imposes a disproportionate burden on young bodies, as the girls are often victims of sexual assault, pregnancy, and domestic violence. Pregnancy-related death is a leading cause of death for girls ages 15 to 19. Child marriages also increase the risk of sexually transmitted diseases, especially HIV/AIDS. Young female bodies are physically ill-equipped to carry a child as pregnancy often creates calcium, iron, or vitamin deficiencies. These deficiencies can lead to stunted growth and a mismatch between the pelvis and the fetal head, leading to obstructed labor and often death. Child marriage also generally restricts the girl’s access to education as the domestic burdens placed on them are incompatible with pursuit of an education.
However, merely making child marriage illegal is not enough. The laws need to be enforced. Children and others need to be aware of the laws. Children need to speak up about what is happening. Finally, children need to be supported during the entire process as they will often have to sever ties with their entire family.
First, obviously, the laws need to be enforced. Not only is this necessary to cease the marriages in Australia, but also necessary to stop the practice entirely. After the ceremonies were outlawed in Australia, parents turned to taking their children overseas to be married. Generally, countries will recognize marriages that have taken place overseas through international treaties. However, when the child resides in Australia, a court order can be issued to stop the child from being taken overseas, thus stopping the marriage. Effectively enforcing the laws will stop both the ceremonies in Australia and the marriages merely taking place elsewhere.
Second, children and authorities need to be aware of the laws. Spreading awareness will help victims speak up because they know that what is happening is wrong. It can also stop the action in the first place because it spreads awareness to the coercers that their actions are wrong. Sometimes, the coercers simply do not know that their actions are wrong. Additionally, there are increased vulnerabilities in immigrant communities as fear of being deported can create a highly coercive environment.
Finally, children will need to be supported during the entire process. This goes beyond simply making the marriage illegal—instead, authorities should protect and support child marriage victims. This should include immigration protection, ensuring victims would not be further victimized by facing deportation if they refuse a marriage. In Australia, victims of forced child marriage may be eligible for a Witness Protection (Trafficking) (Permanent) visa if they assist a police investigation and are in danger if they are returned home. However, this protection is not extremely helpful for victims of child marriage because it would require a child to assist in a police investigation and would often require a victim to testify against his or her family members.
Additional suggestions for prevention of child marriages include mandatory registration of marriages and birth records. Requiring registration of marriages would ensure that the marriages were made public and thus authorities can make sure that both parties can consent to the marriage. Registering birth records would increase the likelihood of finding child marriages because the victims would not live in complete isolation; they would be registered when they give birth. A young girl with an older man who gives birth would surely raise a red flag.
Although Australia has taken two significant steps in the fight against child marriage, much can still be done. Australia has both outlawed the action and enforced the prohibition, giving the Act some teeth. However, knowledge of the prohibition must be spread so children who face possible marriage know to speak up and victims of child marriage are supported through the entire process of preventing or fixing the marriage. The conviction of a man for marrying a child is an important milestone for Australia, but simple prohibition is not enough. Hopefully, Australia will continue the positive trend and find and support these victims.
 Cameron Best, Groom Sentenced in Australian-First Child Bride Case, abc.net.au (Sept. 20, 2017)
 Crimes Legislation Amendment (Slavery, Slavery-Like Conditions and People Trafficking) Act 2013 (‘Slavery Act 2013’), amending Criminal Code Act 1995, received Royal Assent on 7 March 2013 and came into effect on the following day.
 For example, the Imam who performed the ceremony discussed later was also convicted. Best, supra note 1.
 Melbourne Man Pleads Guilty to Marrying 14yo Bride in Wedding at Noble Park, abc.net.au (Apr. 18, 2017), last visited Nov. 6, 2017 (http://www.abc.net.au/news/2017-04-18/melbourne-man-pleads-guilty-to-child-marriage/8451474).
 Best, supra note 1.
 Melbourne Man, supra note 8.
 Frances Simmons & Jennifer Burn, Without Consent: Forced Marriage in Australia, 36 Melb. U. L. Rev. 970, 973 (2013).
 See Id.
 UNICEF Division of Policy and Planning, Child Marriage and the Law: Background Paper for UNICEF Report on State of the World’s Children 2007, at 35 (Jan. 2008).
 Ladan Askari, The Convention on the Rights of the Child: The Necessity of Adding a Provision to Ban Child Marriages, J. Int’l & Comp. L. 4 (1998).
 UNICEF, supra note 13 at 36. For example, it would be difficult to raise a child, keep a house, and attend school.
 Marina Freri, Child Marriage: A Closer Look at the Story Behind the Headlines, abc.net.au (Sept. 26, 2016) last visited Nov. 6, 2017 (http://www.abc.net.au/radionational/programs/breakfast/the-rise-of-child-marriage/7872064). See also Anthony v Kellett,  FCCA 3368 (finding the mother feared the father had arranged a marriage for the child overseas).
 Generally, marriages overseas are valid in Australia if the marriage was valid in that country and would be valid in Australia. Getting Married Overseas, http://smartraveller.gov.au/guide/all-travellers/birth-death-marriage/pages/getting-married-overseas.aspx (last visited Nov. 6, 2017).
 Freri, supra note 18. Report includes the story of a 13-year-old girl whose forced marriage was stopped after a court order was issued preventing her parents from taking her overseas.
 Simmons & Burn, supra note 11, at 979.
 Id. at 1001.