MP fights to stop forced marriage
After hearing of a distraught schoolgirl forced to marry by her parents, Auckland-based National MP Jackie Blue knew she couldn't stand by and do nothing.
One hundred teenagers nationally, including 50 in Auckland, who marry each year would require a court's permission to walk down the aisle under Blue's proposed amendment to the Marriage Act.
Marriage under the age of 16 years is illegal in New Zealand, but 16 and 17-year-olds can marry with parental consent.
About 600 Aucklanders from the latter group gained consent to marry in the 10 years from 2001, making up 60 per cent of the national teenage marriage figures, according to Statistics New Zealand. Four out of five of those were female.
Blue, who is the National list MP for Mt Roskill, said only a small number of teenage nuptials would be marriages forced upon girls for cultural reasons.
"The majority are probably quite legitimate, but the majority of those minors are young girls. I can't not do anything. If it saves one young girl it's going to be worth it."
No data exists on how many people have been forced to marry as affected women are often hidden from the glare of social services. But while researching the issue Blue heard of a recent incident.
A schoolgirl approached a social worker after being forced into an engagement.
By forcing teenagers to seek the court's permission to marry, Blue said it would take parental coercion out of the equation.
"It's not going to stop people from dragging their sons and daughters off shore to get married. We can't stop that, but it's another hurdle."
The bill has not been pulled from the ballot, but Blue said politicians on both sides have signalled support for the law change.
In Australia teenagers must seek a court's permission to marry.
Some countries take an even harder line. British law makers plan to criminalise forced marriage, meaning parents who coerce their children down the aisle may face prison time.
The New Zealand Government agreed to review the rules in January, but ruled out legislation on the basis it was unlikely to stop the cultural practice.
The Government's lack of action came under fire by both women's and ethnic lobby groups at the time.
Unicef New Zealand was one of those organisations calling for legislation to be introduced in New Zealand to prevent forced and child marriages here.
Unicef national advocacy manager Barbara Lambourn agreed the rules had to be tightened up to avoid forced marriage.
Although she had heard reports of forced marriage, it was difficult to gauge the extent of the issue.
''We don't know what level of coercion is taking place. We suspect this is possibly a bigger problem than what is recognised.''
The practice of forced marriage is widespread in countries such as Afghanistan, Malawi and Pakistan.
About 13.5 million girls every year are married before the age of 18, according to the United Nations Population Fund.
The UN recently warned the number of girl child marriages will increase dramatically over the next decade.