‘My friend was wed at 13, a mum at 14’: how authorities failed child brides

Kudos to this girl for speaking out. Lets hope nothing happens to her.

Bee al-Darraj in Sydney. Picture: Renee Nowytarger

An Iraqi-born Australian who ­attended Islamic schools in Sydney’s west says she tried to report multiple counts of child marriage among her school friends to the Australian Federal Police without success.

Bee al-Darraj, now 24, has a thick file of correspondence ­between her and the AFP, as well as with the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade and the NSW Department of Family and Community Services, concerning girls she knew at school, who were taken out of Australia and married at age 12 or 13. Some of the girls were her relatives.

The Australian has declined to name them, but has seen some of Ms al-Darraj’s correspondence, in which she pleads for action to be taken, ­especially in relation to a girl who was 13 when she married and “14 when she gave birth in a public hospital, with a 28-year-old father signing the birth certificate”. “She was still in school but nothing was done until he started to beat her, and then she was put in a safe house,” Ms al-Darraj said.

NSW Family and Community Services Minister Brad Hazzard last month declared the problem of child marriage — involving girls being taken out of Australia to marry men they don’t know, or to whom they may be related — as barbaric and cruel, but also rife in certain communities. The AFP has confirmed it investigated 69 incidents of forced or underage marriage in the 2015-16 financial year, up from 33 the previous year, but there has been only a handful of successful prosecutions.

In a statement, the AFP told The Australian the girls central to Ms al-Darraj’s complaint were ­beyond the reach of Australian law because they had been married ­before 2013.

“Forced marriage was criminalised in March 2013,” the statement said. “The legislation was not retrospective so the AFP is not in a position to investigate matters where a marriage or arrangement occurred prior to March 2013.”

Ms al-Darraj said she had since contacted the AFP with more ­examples, and was told to contact 000. The AFP confirmed this: “If someone is at risk of harm due to forced marriage or any other type of family ­violence, they should contact police on 000. Members of the public who have any information about people involved in forced marriage are urged to contact Crime Stoppers.”

Ms al-Darraj was dismayed by the reaction of authorities “because it’s child trafficking, and they know it’s wrong, but it’s like they have no idea what to do, and if the girls have already left Australia, they can’t do anything”.

Ms al-Darraj’s family came to Australia from Iraq in 1995. She was then one of six children; she is now one of nine, all of whom ­attended Islamic schools, including al-Faisal College in Auburn, Rissalah College in Lakemba and the Australian Islamic College of Sydney in Mount Druitt. She said her father was “pro-education. He wanted his girls to finish school, and maybe even college. But my mother is very old-fashioned”. She said she left home when her mother chose a husband for her, “and even bought the dress”.

She is one of only two sisters in her family still living in Australia.

Ms al-Darraj said she knew of other girls at al-Faisal High School in Auburn who “were married, and they would come to school, a 15-year-old getting dropped off by her 30-year-old husband”.

“For some of them, they want freedom from all the rules at home. And their mother will say, ‘if you don’t like it, get married, and have freedom at your husband’s house’, so they do.”

The al-Faisal school was ­founded in Sydney by families linked to Saudi Arabia’s royal family. It adheres strictly to a code of modesty for girls, who cannot wear short-sleeved uniforms, even in summer. The hijab is compulsory, and skirts are to the floor.

The principal, Ghazwa Adra Khan, did not respond to questions about whether any of the ­students had, to her knowledge, left Australia to marry. The Australian is not suggesting anyone at the schools knew of wrongdoing or failed to report wrongdoing.

Ms al-Darraj said many families “try to hide what they are doing. They might bring a girl over from Iraq or Iran for marriage, and everyone knows she is the bride but if questions are asked, she is the niece, or a family friend. And if the police, or the Department (of Family Services) speak to the girl, she’s terrified. Or else, it’s normal for her”.

She told The Australian her mother wanted her to get married when she was still a schoolgirl but she refused, and fled the family home at the age of 15.

“DOCS (the former Department of Community Services, now Department of Family Services) put me in a safe house with homeless kids who were doing drugs,” she said. She eventually found work as a hairdressing apprentice, and then in an antiques shop in the Blue Mountains, where she now lives. She has no contact with her parents.

Ms al-Darraj decided several years ago to report what she had seen as a schoolgirl to the police, “and it was like a never-ending ­circle”. “Sometimes I was told, we can’t do anything because they are in Iraq. Or else they told me, they should go to the embassy. But how can they go to the embassy when they aren’t allowed out of the house?” she said.

Ms al-Darraj finally began discussing the matter openly with Australian ­author Gabrielle Lord, whose novel Dishonour features an Australian fleeing an arranged marriage. “I found a lot of resistance to my book when I wrote it,” Lord told The Australian. “We all know this is happening in certain communities, but people told me to tone it down because it’s sensitive. But it’s just so wrong. Who’s side are we on? The parents or the girls?”

At one point during her correspondence with Australian authorities, Ms al-Darraj was attempting to get new passports for family members whose husbands had confiscated old ones.

A DFAT officer referred Ms al-Darraj to officials in Iraq, adding “the current security situation in Iraq” meant that “services from the Australian embassy in Baghdad would be limited” and also that “passport applications for ­minors without their parents’ consent are complex”.

In another email, a DFAT officer also explains that “the ­commonwealth legislation which criminalises the act of causing a person to enter into marriage without their full and free consent is not retrospective”.