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HomeIssue 5Elferink and Gooda clash over underage marriage

Elferink and Gooda clash over underage marriage

p2456 NTRC Elferink 280 By KIERAN FINNANE
UPDATED, 30 June 2017, 11.40am: See at bottom.
Former Minister for Families and Children John Elferink (right) has been taken to task by Commissioner Mick Gooda over the issue of forced and underage marriages in  “a number of language groups”.
Underage marriage has a “sexual component” that amounts to sexual abuse, Mr Elferink said.
He had been asked in his statement for the NT Royal Commission, presently conducting hearings in Darwin into issues of child protection, to raise any concerns relating to child protection policies, priorities and practices. This was one.
Commissioner Gooda (below left) said that as the commission has visited communities around the NT, Aboriginal people have consistently expressed their willingness to talk about and take responsibility as parents for problems confronting their children but “not once have they mentioned underage marriage”.
p2456 NTRC (2384) Gooda 280Mr Elferink wanted to know how often a question was “asked about cultural marriages specifically”.
There was no answer to this.
Counsel Assisting the Commission Peter Callaghan SC challenged Mr Elferink on the timing of his comments – why hadn’t he raised the issue earlier in the commission’s process?
Commissioner Margaret White was also concerned that the commission may have missed investigating this practice.
Mr Callaghan also wanted to know the source of Mr Elferink’s knowledge.
Mr Elferink said his anecdotal evidence came from the time (1997 – 2005) he served as MLA for McDonnell in Central Australia, in Western Desert country, and he said a number of criminal trials arising out of the practice have come from other communities.
Mr Gooda referred to the NT Intervention having occurred since then and suggested that Aboriginal people may have already addressed the matter.
p2456 NTRC Price archive 250Mr Elferink said than when he spoke to Alison Anderson and Bess Price, two former Central Australian Aboriginal MLAs, they told him the practice hadn’t gone away. If communities have addressed it, good, but he would “welcome them saying so publicly”.
Jacinta Price (right), daughter of Bess Price and filling her mother’s shoes as an outspoken defender of the rights of Aboriginal women to live free of violence and coercion, told the Alice Springs News Online that she is appalled that Commissioner Gooda would so readily dismiss forced and underage marriage as a concern.
As long as male initiation continues, promised marriages will continue, she says.
She says she is personally aware of its continued practice. She says it is often used “to pull a teenage girl into line” if she is seen to be “playing up”. Their promised husbands, who can be decades older, are “expected to sort them out”.
However she says some young women are refusing to submit and are “getting their own way” through forming a relationship with a younger man.
UPDATE, 30 June 2017, 11.40am:
Mr Elferink also raised, under the same heading as underage marriage,  boys’ initiation practices which he said could result in genital mutilation – a matter of concern.
Mr Callaghan reminded him that as Minister, when asked to comment on a reported case, he had said that it was not a matter where the state could interfere “because it’s a free country”.
Mr Elferink said that statement was in relation to “a very specific legal issue”:  “There was no complaint of assault.  Had there been a complaint of assault, that should have been followed up, but that was not the case.”
He also said he had taken the advice of professionals on the issue, that that advice reflected government policy at the time, but his personal opinion was otherwise.
He was challenged again on this particularly by Dr Peggy Dwyer, representing the North Australian Aboriginal Justice Agency (NAAJA). She put to him that the two cultural practices referred to “have nothing to do with the protection policies, priorities, or practices of the Government”, which was what he had been asked about.
Mr Elferink replied: “I thought about raising these issues long and hard, and it would have been easy for me not to talk about them.  But I thought, and I hoped, that the Royal Commission might turn their minds to it and Aboriginal elders turn their mind to it, because it gives them an opportunity to set a benchmark of acceptable and non-acceptable behaviour.”
Dr Dwyer put to him that “empowering Aboriginal communities with strong culture, connections is the way in which children are best kept safe in the Northern Territory”, but Mr Elferink was not ready to agree: “I don’t know if it is true by virtue of the fact that the vast majority of children that come into our system come from these remote areas and regional areas, and Aboriginal families in the urban areas.  If I’m going to be guided by the evidence of numbers alone, then the fact that so many Aboriginal children are in the custodial environment in terms of protection environment is indicative that those cultural practices are not succeeding.”
Dr Dwyer challenged him on the cultural insensitivity of his remarks but again he pushed back: “There has got to be a baseline of what is acceptable child protection.  There is a battle here between cultural rights and the human rights of the child.  And I will always prefer, in those instances, the human rights of the child, irrespective of which culture we’re talking about.”
Mr Elferink asserted repeatedly that he thought these practices were issues the Aboriginal leadership should address.
Earlier Commissioner Gooda had  pointed out that since the NT Intervention,  cultural practices could not be relied upon as a defence and that underage marriage is dealt with as sexual assault. He put to Mr Elferink that “only four per cent – and it should be zero – but four per cent of Aboriginal children in care are [there] as a result of sexual abuse”, a percentage lower than for the non-Aboriginal community.
Said Commissioner Gooda: “The proposition I want to put is, given that it’s now treated as sexual assault, and there’s such a low rate of sexual abuse as a reason, don’t you think leaders might already have changed?”
Mr Elferink: “The practice, as I understand it, still continues and that’s the message that I want from leaders.”


  1. It is against the law for female genital mutilation yet young boys are not afforded the same protection by law. This lore supports entitlement that the boys are then men and are held in higher status so no wonder the arranged marriages for child brides continue. Each law/ lore displays a gender bias. It is time that both protected all children in our Territory.
    What is the link to self worth, family violence, mental health and substance usage ??????
    Surprised by the commissioner’s response to say the least.

  2. Re abuse, assault, torture, the “sexual component” that amounts to sexual abuse”, relating to youth detention and child protection policies, priorities and practices. Is this issue he raises a red herring? Maybe Mr Elferink should be responding to the mind control stategies and torture that his department condoned under white fella law.
    Part of my submission to the RC re the Don Dale Four Corners footage referred to evidence that youth were being subjected to treatment that meets the international definition of torture and military-style mind control techniques that ‘break” the mind, body and soul. I quote from an article, although it focusses on refugees and asylum seekers, that raises questions that also need to be considered in this inquiry. “Ethics of the unspeakable: Torture survivors in psychoanalytic treatment” by Beatrice Patsalides, Ph.D.
    “Torture is a public secret. Its practice is known and widespread and has blurred the boundaries between the so-called civilized and non-civilized, the first, second, and third worlds. As refugees, survivors of torture are mostly class-less citizens. As patients they are, by virtue of their questioning of extremes, unclassifiable. As humans they are like all of us, although, perhaps, on the more courageous side of being.”
    “Methods of torture are innumerable and of unfathomable inventiveness and cruelty, with the difference being that in the so-called “civilized” world’s methods of torture have become – thanks to the knowledge of modern psychology – more sophisticated, so that the lack of visible traces on the body increases the secrecy of the practice and decreases the survivors’ credibility. Not being able to show a scar, “objectively” consistent with the method of torture claimed, drastically limits the survivor’s chances of citizenship in the country of refuge. Ironically, therefore, the more deeply, the more frequently, and the more visibly one was hurt, the greater one’s officially granted chances of immigration and survival.”
    “Torture, executed in spaces of secrecy and in anonymity, is based on fundamental transgressions:
    Victims are stripped of their name, their clothes, their home, their loved ones – all that was familiar and would give hold to a sense of attachment, of strength, of freedom, and “I-ness”. They are forcibly robbed of their sleep and their dreams so as to become warped in time and space, empty-headed though crazed by rumination and fear, starved for contact and comfort. With nobody and nowhere but the torturer to turn to for solace, and disabled in their
    capacity to distance, deny, detach, and defend against the always looming temptation to helplessly surrender victims of torture, in that state of regression, may develop what is called a traumatic bond with their torturer. The torturer and his schemes, being friendly today and brutal tomorrow, has become the center of the victim’s universe. And he often represents the only source of hope.”

  3. Can you imagine trying to force the contemporary Aboriginal girl into a forced marriage (or anything else) these days?
    Even 30 years ago this was exceptionally rare and never worked out.
    A girl subjected to forced marriage walked out into the desert from a remote community in the ’80s and was never seen again.
    Another attacked her husband with an axe while he slept.
    When young men are promised a wife these days there is no compulsion in it and rarely do men end up with the girl.
    It is still important as part of the man-making ritual but entirely up to the individuals from then on.

  4. Peter, Posted June 30, 2017 at 2:30 pm: some young girls may resist promised marriage more strongly these days, but I doubt whether some are in a position to do so.
    It has been authoritatively reported by youth workers in Alice Springs and Tennant Creek in the last few years that rape of young women is rife in these towns.


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