SYDNEY - The Australian government is investigating claims a nine-year-old girl from Sydney has been taken out of the country to be married in the Middle East, officials said Tuesday.
The Immigrant Women's Health Service said it received a tip-off about the case, adding that the issue of child brides was going largely unreported.
The service's executive director Eman Sharobeem said staff immediately went to the girl's home to speak to her family, and they indicated she would return at some point.
"I have fears for her safety. I have fears for her wellbeing. If the suspicion came and we didn't attend to it, then it's our fault," she told the Sydney Morning Herald.
"In cases like this, many girls disappear from the radar and we don't know anything about them, and then we are surprised with them coming back married or already pregnant."
"Forced marriage is an insidious and hidden crime," said Justice Minister Michael Keenan, adding that the government was checking the report about the nine-year-old.
"We're very keen to... make sure that if somebody is to come across this type of crime that they know how to go about helping that person to report it to authorities so we can do something about it."
The report of the girl's disappearance came on the day that the government launched a new action plan on combating human trafficking, slavery and forced marriage.
It included a Forced Marriage Community Pack, designed to raise awareness of the issue after feedback from community organisations, government agencies and vulnerable groups.
New South Wales state's Minister for Women Pru Goward added that parents needed to know it was illegal to take their child overseas for a forced marriage.
"Certainly the person who 'married' the girl can be prosecuted and it is just an unacceptable part of life in Australia," she said.
According to Plan International, 39,000 girls under the age of 18, mostly in the developing world, are married globally every day. One in nine of them are under 15, but only a handful of cases are reported in Australia.
While welcoming the government focus on forced marriage, Sharobeem said the brochures would have little effect.
"Forced marriage and child brides happen among the culturally and linguistically diverse communities, those communities will not go to the website and will not share glossy papers to see what's written about legislation in the country," she said.