Rania Farrah* was just like any other ordinary Australian teenage girl.
Like most kids her age, her biggest concerns were trying to get away with not doing homework, and deciding where to go out with her friends on the weekend.
But when she was only 13-years-old, Rania’s life changed.
Rania’s family told her she was going on a trip to Egypt. But instead, after leaving Australia, she was held captive by her own father in Syria. She was horrifically beaten and emotionally abused.
And she was told she had to marry her second cousin, a man in his 30s.
But the scary thing about Rania’s story is that it’s not the only case of something like this happening. She is not the only underage Australian girl being forced to marry a man many years her senior.
This evening’s episode of Channel 9’s 60 Minutes explored this practice, and helped give Rania a voice to share her traumatising story.
Rania’s mother Margaret met Rania’s father in Australia, but the couple moved to Saudi Arabia soon after their marriage. According to Rania, it was a violent relationship, and she remembers that her dad “used to beat my mum. He never beat us… [but] he beat my mum all the time.”
When Rania was eight-years-old, Margaret and her five young children fled to Australia – leaving their father behind. The family’s life changed for the better. They lived with Margaret’s “true blue Aussie” family, as Rania described them in the interview, and for many years they only heard from her father occasionally by telephone.
But when she was 13, Rania’s older brother said he would take her on a trip to Egypt for a holiday. After one week in Egypt, however, Rania was taken to Jordan to see her father.
Almost immediately, her passport was confiscated, and Rania was told she would be living with his family now.
Rania spoke with her mother over the phone every three weeks, and begged her mother to bring her back to Australia. Each time she was told, “We can’t afford it” or “One more year.”
Her new family controlled every aspect of her life; and when Rania was 17, she was told that she would marry her second cousin in Syria. The man was more than 15 years her senior.
“We never spoke, ever. I’d never make eye contact with him. I just met him on family visits and served coffee and tea,” she says of her relationship with him. “I went along with it. I did all the things I needed to do. We had the engagement party, I got given the gold, the money to go buy all the clothes that newlywed women buy, and I did it all and put on the face and… I didn’t feel anything, because by that stage I was already planning my escape.”
Through a young girl who lived next door, Rania was secretly given the British Embassy’s phone number. When she called them, she was told she would have to wait until she was 18 to make an escape.
She so waited. And waited. And when she finally turned 18, she organised to meet an official in a safe location.
Rania says that it was her “one and only” chance.
“If I didn’t get out, I was going to kill myself that very day, because it would’ve been my entire life, just there,” she says. “I wasn’t going to do it. That wasn’t worth living for.”
Thankfully, she did make it out and came back to Australia.
Tragically, for some young girls, being in Australia does not provide protection.
In February this year, it was discovered that an imam had allegedly married a 12-year-old girl to a 26-year-old man. Both the imam and the “husband” were charged, with solemnisation of a marriage by an unauthorised person and multiple counts of having sex with a child respectively.
Despite the fact that in 2013 the federal government passed legislation making the “coercing of someone into marriage a serious crime, punishable by up to seven years in prison”, these marriages still secretly take place in Australia.
Dr Eman Sharobeem, from the Immigrant Women’s Health Service in Sydney’s west, also spoke to 60 Minutes. She too was forced to be a child bride while she was 14 and living in Egypt – and today she devotes herself to raising awareness about this issue in Australia.
“It’s not secret within our communities. It’s maybe secret to the eyes of the rest of the Australian community,” she says.
Dr Sharobeem says that 60 child brides have been discovered in the Sydney region alone – the area she works in – in the last three years.
Rania told 60 Minutes that even once she made it back to Australia, she didn’t feel protected. Her family never asked her what had happened in Syria. She says, “It was never spoken of. No-one ever talked about it. No-one ever asked what happened. To this day they don’t know what happened.”
Troublingly, Rania’s father has since returned to Australia with his new family. She saw him once, and at that meeting she says he told her, “No western pig government is going to tell me how to raise my daughters. And if it comes to it, I’ll slit your mother’s throat and I’ll slit your sister’s throat and I’ll slit your throat.”
Rania fears that he will come after her, and has taken out a restraining order against her father.
Rania is still visibly traumatised by what she has experienced. Still haunted, and still scared. But she has also decided to speak out, in the hopes that she might be able to save other young girls from the same fate that she had to endure.
Rania’s advice for other girls, who may have been forced into marriage – or who know that they will be – is: “Run for your life. You’re in a country – if you are in Australia – you’re in a country that believes in women’s rights and your safety and freedom. So run. Cut them off. Your life will be the better for it.”
Women who need assistance relating to the issue of forced marriage can contact the Immigrant Women’s Health Service through their website: www.immigrantwomenshealth.org.au. If you are in immediate danger please call 000.
*Name changed to protect identities.
To learn more, click here to read “The horrific practice that is happening every day in Australian suburbs.”
Or click here to read, “Forced marriage – they’re happening right here in Australia.”
How do you think we can stop forced child marriage in Australia?