New Zealand forced marriage victims young as 10

(Newshub.)
(Newshub.)

Bravery comes in all shapes and sizes and, in this case, the form of a woman outlined by burqa. Revealing her eyes or real name on TV would threaten her safety, but she's come a long way from a life in hiding.

Newshub has learned that underage Kiwi girls are being forced into marriage and some as young as 10 years old are being promised as brides.

A refuge for ethnic women in New Zealand says a loophole in marriage law is being exploited to carry out forced marriages. 

Three months ago the Government announced a move to make forced marriage illegal, but a women's group says it still constantly hears the horror stories.

"Laila" was married to a man with New Zealand citizenship when he flew to her home in the Middle East. 

"What I thought was, I am going to a Western country - my life would get better and I would have a good life. But the reality was I was treated like an animal," she says.

She didn't understand what the marriage ceremony meant, but it sank in when a month later she was taken to Auckland with her new husband. Her age changed from 15 to 18.  

"It's quite common where I come from to fake birth certificates, so my travel documents were also faked."

Laila's family was paid US$6000 for the marriage - a sum her new husband said she then needed to pay back with a life of servitude, cooking and cleaning for his large extended family.

She says marital rape began the night of the wedding.

"I didn't even know frankly what was going on because I was too young then. It was only by the time I had the last one that I realised, okay this is what pregnancy is and this is what being a mother is and how motherhood happens."

Severe beatings continued through four pregnancies over 10 years until it became too much. She escaped in the middle of the night, flagging down a stranger to help her.

She found refuge with ethnic women's group Shakti.

Shakti advocate Wendy Vyas says there are many more women like Laila in New Zealand.

"They were lucky enough to get the chance to leave. What about the ones who are not able to leave? So this is definitely the tip of the iceberg."

Shakti says it has worked with more than 300 suspected forced marriage victims over the past five years. Many leave New Zealand.  

"I have also seen and known a few of them who were brought from Western countries back to where I come from, and being married off and being forced to stay for at least a couple of years there until they're able to produce some children."

When Newshub asked at what age the girls from New Zealand are being taken to those countries, Ms Vyas said as young as 10.

Consent is what separates culturally accepted arranged marriages from forced marriages, which are illegal.

"Sometimes these marriages are carried out over the phone via Skype, where you have the person conducting the ceremony speakerphone, and these are culturally validated marriages," Ms Vyas says.

Because it is considered a cultural marriage, it is legal.

Now that she's free of him, Laila no longer lives with the threat of deportation from her husband, or worse - death if she returned to her own family. 

"It's shame for the family, and their belief is they did what they did for my wellbeing and I should have stayed put. Having left the marriage is shameful for the whole family and it's a dishonour."

"The only reason I'm doing this story with you is to bring an awareness of what's happening. With the women like myself and with this story, I'm hoping that even if it can even make the difference to a life of one woman, I would appreciate that."  

On Sunday night Newshub will look at just how many people are getting married under the age of 18 in New Zealand and a private members Bill that would change the rules around how 16- and 17-year-olds can marry. 

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