Forced marriages shock most Germans, but they still happen. Now the government has published a set of guidelines to help teachers identify and deal with cases where their students might be married off against their will.
Forced marriage is getting increased attention in Germany
Last month a 15-year-old girl from Hamburg made headlines when she texted a friend and her teacher saying that she had been taken to Berlin against her will and was being forced into a marriage by her Serbian family.
The authorities were alerted and the youth welfare office intervened. The girl recanted her story, however, and was returned to her family. In an e-mail quoted by the Hamburger Abendblatt newspaper, her classmates contend she only changed the story under pressure from her parents.
If it weren't for her teacher, the world may never have known this girl's story.
Guidelines for dealing with 'abuse of human rights'
Boehmer says the guidelines will give teachers the right tools to deal with forced marriage
Recently the German government's integration commissioner released a set of guidelines for schools dealing with potential cases of forced marriage.
"Forced marriage is an abuse of human rights," said Commissioner Maria Boehmer. "Current mechanisms for helping young men and women threatened by forced marriage often come too late or not at all. Schools can play an important role here."
One section of the guidelines, which will soon be made available to every school in the country, is a list of agencies and organizations that can help young men or women threatened by a forced marriage.
One of those groups is Papatya, a crisis and transition center for girls with immigrant backgrounds. The director of the center told Deutsche Welle she thinks focusing on schools is crucial, because most of those threatened by forced marriage are between the ages of 14 and 20 and attend school.
"School is the only place where they're allowed to go by their families. That means it's also the only place where they can get help," she said. "That's why it's so important that teachers are prepared for this issue, so they can give these girls the appropriate advice."
Teachers often have the first contact with at-risk young people
Taking a proactive approach
The guidelines encourage teachers to have discussions about relationships and gender roles in class, to talk about human rights in social studies and about one's right to choose when it comes to sex and marriage during sex education.
For Sibylle Schreiber of the women's rights organization Terre des Femmes, which helped put the guidelines together, the key is to take a proactive approach.
"That means for the teachers to talk about how I will find a partner, would I like to marry or not and how does it work," Schreiber said. "So first the teacher talks about marriages or partnerships and then slowly they work their way to the topic of forced marriages. Then students who are worried about a possible marriage know their teachers are open to discussing it with them."
Teachers are encouraged to hang up a list included in the guidelines, of agencies and organizations that can help young men or women. If a student does come to his or her teacher worried about a marriage, the teacher should treat the student's concerns as credible and connect the student with those who specialize in dealing with the issue.
Rooted in patriarchal family structures
The guidelines say teachers and students should talk about their right to choose
In the introduction to the guidelines, the authors take pains to make clear that forced marriage is not a problem of one particular religion or culture. And it can happen to boys as well as girls. According to the guidelines, there have been cases of Asian, African and Eastern European families forcing a relative to marry against his or her will.
"In Germany, forced marriage is to some extent perceived as problem of people with a Turkish migration background. But forced marriage is not the problem of a particular population group," the introduction says. "Forced marriage is thus not a question of nationality or religion, but has its roots in patriarchal family structures."
"A marriage isn't going to be forced on someone who is normally treated with respect," the director of Papatya said. "It happens in families where girls don't have a say, where no one listens to what they want, where opposition isn't tolerated and where there is violence.
Forced marriage isn't actually a new problem in Germany, she said. Her center has been working with girls facing such marriages for 25 years. What has changed, she said, is the level of awareness. The girls who arrive at her center looking for help are speaking out more and more against unwanted marriages.
Author: Holly Fox
Editor: Chuck Penfold